Dr. Scott Ellner, CEO of Billings Clinic, speaks with Asma Khalid about a potential conflict between state and federal mandates over the vaccination status of hospital workers in Montana.
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
Montana hospitals are likely to face a dilemma soon. If they wish to continue receiving federal funds from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, all of their employees must be vaccinated against COVID under a scheduled rule. The problem is, Montana is one of two states that have banned private companies from having vaccine mandates. Dr. Scott Ellner is CEO of Billings Clinic, one of the largest healthcare systems in Montana, and joins us now. Welcome to the show.
SCOTT ELLNER: Nice to be here, Asma.
KHALID: First of all, can you give us a feel for how many of your employees have been vaccinated?
ELLNER: Of our around 5,000 employees, around two thirds have been vaccinated against the COVID vaccine so far.
KHALID: So that – the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ vaccination mandate is supposed to go into effect every day. You would probably all lose a lot of money.
ELLNER: Yes, that’s right. If we were asked by CMS to contract the vaccine and lose that funding, it would be unsustainable for us to continue clinical operations. That’s about 51% of our sales today, hundreds of millions of dollars that would affect us.
KHALID: Have you had any conversations with – be it the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS officials, or officials there in the state of Montana – about the predicament you are all in?
ELLNER: We did not have any formal discussions. It is a topic that we are discussing. However, we are still waiting for indications as to when or if this mandate will be published via CMS before we really take action.
KHALID: Have you all tried to educate or convince employees who were reluctant to get the vaccine? And how did those conversations go when you had them?
ELLNER: We had a lot of one-on-one discussions. Our doctors spoke directly to our staff about the importance of the vaccine. We have engaged in weekly town halls on the scientific research that confirms the vaccine to be very effective. And you know, there is a lot of misinformation out there that unfortunately continues to exist. And we also fight against this misinformation.
KHALID: Do you think the CMS mandate is unfair? I understand that the state has no mandates. But CMS essentially means that if you want those funds, you have to have all of your employees vaccinated.
ELLNER: Yes, it will be a difficult situation. You know, we have state law that prevents us from prescribing the vaccine. And then we have CMS that could potentially withhold important funds to maintain and support our clinical services. It’s really a no-win for us either way. And what happens is that we see the consequences of unvaccinated people dying. And 85% of our intensive care patients today – and our intensive care units are full; they are 150% full – these unvaccinated people are dying. So we wish it was beyond politics and more about what we can do right for patients.
KHALID: You know, you say you’re waiting to decide what to do. But what options do you really have? Should the state lobby? You know, is it to influence the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services? Should it go to court?
ELLNER: We have Zoom calls with our legislators. We also talk to others out there about what if this leads to a legal challenge? And how should we navigate through there? So I would say that first and foremost, we are doing our part to ensure that the vaccine is available and that the best information about the science behind it is available. And then we talk to our elected officials about how we can educate the public about the importance of this in getting us through the pandemic.
KHALID: All right. This is Dr. Scott Ellner. He is the CEO of Billings Clinic, a health network in the state of Montana. Thank you very much, Dr. Ellner. We really appreciate it.
ELLNER: Thank you.
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