Requests unlikely for exemption from Arkansas’ new ban on COVID vaccine mandates

CMS will still review staff vaccination rates for quality ratings

By: - October 3, 2023 5:35 pm

Arkansas is among 26 states that restrict the ability of public entities to require COVID-19 vaccination. (Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images)

Arkansas last month banned state and local government entities from requiring coronavirus vaccination, becoming the 26th state with a mandate restriction.

The measure is mostly symbolic, as the Biden administration revoked the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for employees of Medicare- or Medicaid-funded health care facilities in June.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, though, will continue to look at facilities’ staff vaccination rates as a measure in the agency’s quality ratings system, which is used to assign star ratings to hospitals and other health clinics as well as to determine reimbursement rates. 

The federal government isn’t expected to reinstate a vaccine mandate, and public health institutions in Arkansas don’t believe that consideration of their employees’ vaccination rates will have any negative impacts.

Only three state agencies were affected by the CMS vaccine mandate before it expired — the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. All three requested exemptions to a previous ban on COVID vaccine mandates from the Arkansas Legislative Council.

The new law also includes a provision that would allow agencies to request exemptions if federal dollars are at stake, but no such requests are expected. 

UAMS saw the greatest impact from the vaccine mandate, and the institution still requires influenza vaccination unless an employee has a medical or religious exemption.

More than 90% of UAMS employees were vaccinated against COVID-19, said Leslie Taylor, vice chancellor of communications and marketing. With the mandate expired, Taylor said UAMS no longer tracks which employees are vaccinated.

“UAMS no longer requires employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 although we encourage those who are eligible to consider doing so,” Taylor said. “UAMS lifted the COVID-19 vaccine requirement  June 1 after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a final rule that withdrew the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for hospitals receiving CMS funding.”

Similarly, DHS let its mandate expire in June for employees at all five human development centers, the Arkansas State Hospital and the Arkansas Health Center, according to a spokesman.

A CMS spokesperson didn’t respond to a question about whether the agency would ever reinstate its coronavirus vaccine mandate, but did say the agency continues to monitor vaccine uptake.

“CMS uses COVID-19 vaccination rates among health care personnel as a measure in a number of its quality reporting programs, including for determining a hospital’s overall quality star ratings as part of Care Compare, and its Hospital Inpatient Quality, Inpatient Psychiatric Facility Quality, and PPS-Exempt Cancer Hospital Quality Reporting Programs, among others,” CMS said in a statement.

“We continue to remind everyone that the strongest protection from COVID-19 is the vaccine and urge everyone to stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations.”

Taylor said UAMS isn’t concerned about being negatively affected on CMS’ quality measures related to coronavirus vaccination. 

UAMS Medical Center has a two-star overall rating (out of five), according to CMS. Roughly 94% of UAMS’ staff is vaccinated against COVID-19, beating the national average of 87%, according to CMS data.

UAMS also continues to qualify for full CMS reimbursement. 

“We continue to work closely with CMS and look to them for guidance,” Taylor said. “We support their recommendation that everyone 6 months and older receive an updated COVID-19 vaccine.”

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.