Tennessee comptroller revokes exemptions from state ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

NASHVILLE -Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower announced Wednesday he has suspended authority for nearly 70 businesses, universities, hospitals, governmental authorities and other employers to impose COVID-19 vaccine requirements on workers following preliminary rulings by federal trial court judges in Kentucky and Louisiana.

The entities had been granted an exemption under a new Tennessee law, approved last month by GOP lawmakers and signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The law is intended to push back against President Joe Biden's vaccination requirements for employers, as part of a federal effort to stop the spread of a pandemic that has killed more than 17,000 Tennesseans.

Republicans who passed the ban on vaccine mandates included provisions allowing those facing loss of federal funding because of Biden's initiative to seek exemptions. Legislators put Mumpower, their appointee as state comptroller, in charge of determining and granting the exemptions.

Sixty-nine employers had applied and received exemptions as of Wednesday. All of the exemptions are now suspended. But Mumpower's office also noted it would continue to accept exemption requests pending final outcomes of the two lawsuits.

Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee was among the employers that had applied for and received an exemption.

photo Jason Mumpower

"Following the district court's preliminary injunction, we have paused our efforts to require proof of vaccination from all employees - a move we announced to employees late yesterday [Tuesday]," BlueCross Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Dalya Qualls said Wednesday in a statement to the Times Free Press. "At the same time, we know COVID-19 is not going away, and so we're still encouraging vaccination as the best way for our employees to protect themselves and their loved ones."

Chattanooga-based Erlanger Health System also had been granted an exemption.

"As always, Erlanger will operate in accordance with legal guidelines and rules for participation in critical government funding programs," Erlanger spokeswoman Blaine Kelley stated in an email to the Times Free Press. "We have implemented a hold on our directive requiring the COVID-19 vaccine or an approved medical or religious exemption by the Dec. 5 deadline.

"However," she added, "we continue to encourage our employees to proceed in their efforts to fulfill one of these requirements. We emphasize that we are obligated to adhere to the [U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services'] Conditions of Participation to remain financially viable and fulfill our mission to this community, and as such, we must continue to prepare in the event the CMS Mandate becomes permanently codified."

Andrea Turner, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Hospital Association, said in a statement Wednesday to the Times Free Press that hospitals weren't required to seek exemptions from the comptroller's office.

"Their exemption was written into the state law, but only to the extent that they were subject to Medicare and Medicaid conditions of participation that required them to implement a vaccination mandate," Turner stated. "So it is the federal district court action, not the action by the comptroller, that is affecting hospitals."

Turner said THA has advised its member hospitals that the preliminary injunction issued by the federal judge in Louisiana puts a hold on enforcement of the CMS COVID-19 mandate for health care workers. It effectively eliminates the exemption hospitals had to Tennessee's vaccine mandate prohibition during the period in which the injunction is in effect, she said.

"As such, hospitals in Tennessee are now subject to the state law, which prohibits a private business from compelling a person to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination," Turner noted.

In addition to health care, the Tennessee law also created an exemption for federal contractors and subcontractors subject to the Biden administration vaccination requirement.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction against Biden's vaccine mandate for health care workers, which had been set to take effect nationwide next week.

Doughty's order extends to all 50 states an earlier preliminary junction issued by a federal judge in Missouri who had limited his initial order to 10 states.

The same day as Doughty ruled in Louisiana, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove in the Eastern District of Kentucky issued a preliminary injunction against the Biden administration's effort to require employers that are federal contractors ensure their workers were vaccinated.

"This is not a case about whether vaccines are effective. They are," Tatenhove wrote in the case that was brought by attorneys general from Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. "Nor is this a case about whether the government, at some level, and in some circumstances, can require citizens to obtain vaccines. It can. The question presented here is narrow."

Tatenhove wrote it boils down to this: "Can the president use congressionally delegated authority to manage the federal procurement of goods and services to impose vaccines on the employees of federal contractors and subcontractors? In all likelihood, the answer to that question is no. So, for the reasons that follow, the pending request for a preliminary injunction will be granted."

The judge previously noted that in 2020, Tennessee was the "place of performance" for $10.25 billion worth of federal contracts with $10 billion worth of federal contracts held by Tennessee vendors, including Tennessee agencies.

Unlike the Louisiana judge's preliminary injunction, which is national in scope, Tatenhove's preliminary injunction is limited to just Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery spokeswoman Samantha Fisher said in a statement Wednesday to the Times Free Press.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.