DuBOIS — Penn Highlands Healthcare officials, at its recent media teleconference, addressed the vaccine mandate issued on Nov. 4 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“This mandate requires all healthcare workers in the United States to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4th, 2022,” said PHH Chief Operating Officer Mark Norman. “This federal mandate has a twofold purpose — to reduce the risk unvaccinated healthcare workers present to patient safety, and also to provide stability and uniformity among all U.S. healthcare systems.”

Norman said since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, PHH has followed all protocols and complied with all federal and state requirements regarding employee and patient safety.

“Since this vaccine became available last December, we have strongly encouraged everyone, from our employees to the people in the communities we serve, to protect themselves and others by getting this vaccine,” said Norman.

At this time, Norman said Penn Highlands Healthcare fully intends to comply with this federal mandate in all seven of their hospitals in DuBois, Brookville, Clearfield, St. Marys, Huntingdon, Tyrone and Monongahela, as well as their outpatient facilities, physician offices, home health agencies, and long-term care facilities all across their 39-county service areas.

He said this mandate will affect 5,654 employees, 740 physicians and 374 advanced providers across the PHH system.

“Healthcare is one of the most regulated industries in this country, failure to comply with the mandate would jeopardize our participation in federal government programs like Medicare and Medicaid,” said Norman. “To put this in general terminology or layman’s terms, if we do not comply, they will stop reimbursing us for patients we care for who have Medicare and Medicaid insurance — which, at this time, currently represents about 66 percent of our net revenue across our health system. This will lead to less staff and less individuals we can care for across this great state.”

Norman said if PHH fails to comply with the CMS mandate, “it will put all of their hospitals at risk of closure, to the fines and penalties to which we will be subjected to. In addition, if we fail to comply with the federal mandate, everyone stands to lose, not just our employees and patients, but everyone in our communities.”

For example, Norman said in 2020, the total impact of their health system’s seven hospitals on the Pennsylvania economy was nearly $1.6 billion. The hospital spending includes employee salaries, wages, and other benefits, as well as the goods and services needed to provide healthcare services and support the hospital’s operations.

Currently, PHH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron said PHH has a total of 109 patients in their seven hospitals with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19; 13 on ventilators; and four patients have died in the past day.

“One of the best ways everyone, our employees, physicians, and the people in our communities, can protect themselves and each other is through the vaccinations,” said Cameron.

Cameron said more than 432 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been safely given in the U.S. since Dec. 14, 2020, through Nov. 8, 2021.

Cameron clarified that there are two federal mandates.

He said one was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and covers companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated. The OSHA mandate offers a weekly testing option for those who do not want to get vaccinated.

The other mandate, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, requires healthcare workers to get vaccinated with no option of weekly testing.

“The CMS mandate is the one that health systems are required to follow, including Penn Highlands,” said Cameron. “According to the CMS mandate, all staff must be fully vaccinated, two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by Jan. 4, 2022. As we said earlier, per the government mandate, weekly COVID-19 tests are not an option for healthcare workers who do not want the vaccine. The federal vaccine mandates applies to all employees, union and non-union, throughout our health system.

“In addition, it applies to all individuals who conduct business with the health system, including non-employed physicians, students, volunteers, vendors, consultants, delivery personnel, drug reps, etc.,” said Cameron. “It includes practically anyone who walks through our doors except patients and their families.”

Cameron said employees who are not fully vaccinated by Jan. 3, 2022 will be placed on unpaid administrative leave for 45 days with the hope that they will change their mind and get vaccinated.

After 45 days without getting vaccinated, per the mandate, they will no longer be permitted to work at Penn Highlands, said Cameron.

Cameron said currently there are 1,922 employees who are not fully vaccinated across the health care system. At Penn Highlands DuBois, which has approximately 2,200 employees, 70 percent are fully vaccinated at this time.

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