House GOP leans on Mayo Clinic to call off its vaccine mandate

Letter to CEO threatens to withdraw funding support

By: - December 16, 2021 9:44 am

The Mayo Clinic. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer

Gov. Tim Walz and DFL lawmakers are slamming a letter signed by more than three dozen House GOP state representatives that asks the Mayo Clinic to end its vaccine mandate for hospital employees.

The letter goes further, threatening to withdraw support for state funding intended to alleviate health care workforce shortages.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, wrote  to Mayo Clinic CEO and President Gianrico Farrugia saying she and other Republican lawmakers opposed the hospital’s “heavy-handed” vaccine mandate, arguing that it is too restrictive and that Mayo Clinic employees seeking exemptions for medical and religious reasons have been denied.

“Though 100 percent employee vaccination may be ideal according to Mayo guidelines, we do not believe it is ethical, nor is it realistic,” Bennett wrote on Dec. 8. “We have had a healthcare worker shortage in Minnesota for quite some time, especially in rural areas where the Mayo Clinic predominantly serves. Losing even a small number of doctors and nurses because of an excessive employee vaccine mandate puts our healthcare system at risk.”

Bennett said the “onerous and daunting” exemption process risks worsening healthcare worker shortages as some staff have to decide between keeping their jobs or be vaccinated.

The letter was signed by 37 of her House GOP colleagues, including Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. The House GOP caucus has 59 members. 

Walz criticized Republicans, who have long opposed mandates, calling the effort “irresponsible” in a KAAL-ABC interview.  

He added: “Now they send a letter to a private employer, a world-leading health care institution, that knows more about infectious diseases than anyone…Was there ever a letter like this sent on polio? Measles?”

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, blasted the GOP as “disturbing” and noted the state recently surpassed more than 10,000 deaths due to COVID-19 since the pandemic started. 

In the letter, Bennett asked, “How can we as Minnesota legislators rationalize investing state money for healthcare worker shortage programs and grants if those hospitals then turn around and fire those employees, thereby exacerbating the problem? We will not support state funding for programs like these, or any other funding, for any healthcare facility that fires their employees due to unrealistic vaccine mandate policies.”

A Mayo Clinic spokeswoman said in a statement the hospital had a “moral imperative” to require vaccination of its workforce. 

Our staff provide care to transplant patients, cancer patients, immunocompromised patients and some of the most medically vulnerable people in the world. These patients deserve the safety of vaccinated staff to care for them during a global pandemic,” spokeswoman Kelley Luckstein said in a statement.

Luckstein noted that Mayo Clinic has granted the majority of exemptions sought and that private employers, including clinic and hospital systems, have implemented vaccine requirements for years.

Ninety-three percent of Mayo Clinic staff have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Luckstein said. Staff have until Jan. 3 to receive at least one dose of the vaccine. “While Mayo Clinic does not want to lose any of its valued staff, Mayo remains firmly committed to requiring vaccination for staff to help ensure the safety of our patients, staff, visitors and communities,” she said.

The GOP letter comes as President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate for health care workers at hospitals and clinics that participate in Medicare and Medicaid faces serious legal challenges.

A federal judge in Louisiana had previously halted the implementation of Biden’s mandate, but on Wednesday, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Biden’s administration and reinstated the policy in about half of U.S. states. The case could eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A spokesman for the House GOP declined to make Bennett or another caucus member available for an interview. 

Hospital beds and intensive-care units are also overwhelmed as hospitalizations reach record high levels this year, Liebling noted.

“Their attack on Mayo Clinic is particularly disturbing,” she said. “They question Mayo’s scientific judgment and decisions about how to best protect its patients and even threaten to withhold state funding if they don’t get their way. Meanwhile, doctors, nurses, and health care leaders are pleading with Minnesotans to get vaccinated and take other precautions to fight the pandemic. It’s past time for Republicans to abandon extremism and help fight this threat to our public health.”

Bennett in her letter noted that she and her colleagues do not oppose vaccinations, but that they oppose vaccine mandates. 

All of the available COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. have been fully authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, the anti-vaccine movement has found supporters among GOP lawmakers, including many in the GOP-controlled Senate. 

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