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Montana private hospitals could lose funding due to state ban on vaccine mandates

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Montana hospitals will likely soon face a dilemma. If they want to continue to receive federal dollars from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, all their employees must be vaccinated against COVID under a planned rule. Problem is Montana is one of two states that has barred private businesses from having vaccine mandates. Dr. Scott Ellner is CEO of Billings Clinic, one of the largest health care systems in Montana, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

SCOTT ELLNER: Great to be here, Asma.

KHALID: Can you begin by giving us a sense of just how many of your staff members have been vaccinated?

ELLNER: So far, out of our roughly 5,000 employees, about two-thirds of them have been vaccinated for the COVID vaccine.

KHALID: So this - the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services vaccine mandate is supposed to go into effect any day now. So presumably, you all would lose a lot of funding.

ELLNER: Yeah, that's correct. If we were required by CMS to mandate the vaccine and lose that funding, it would be unsustainable for us to continue clinical operations. That's roughly 51% of our revenue today, so hundreds of millions of dollars that - it would impact us.

KHALID: Have you had conversations with - whether it is the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS officials or officials there in the state of Montana - about the predicament you all find yourselves in?

ELLNER: We have not had any formal conversations. It is a topic that we are discussing. However, we're still waiting for guidance on when or if that mandate will come out through CMS before we really do anything.

KHALID: Have you all tried to, you know, educate or persuade staff who have been hesitant to get the vaccine? And how have those conversations gone, if you've had them?

ELLNER: We've had many one-on-one conversations. Our physicians have talked to our staff directly about the importance of the vaccine. We have engaged in weekly town halls about the scientific research that supports the vaccine as being very effective. And, you know, there is a lot of misinformation out there, unfortunately, that continues to exist. And we're battling that misinformation, as well.

KHALID: Do you feel like the CMS mandate is unfair? I understand that the state has no mandates. But CMS is essentially, you know, saying, if you want these funds, you have to have all your employees vaccinated.

ELLNER: Yeah, it's going to be a difficult situation. You know, we have a state law that prevents us from mandating the vaccine. And then we have CMS, which could potentially withhold important funds to sustain and support our clinical services. It really is kind of a no-win situation for us either way. And what's happening is we're seeing the results of people unvaccinated dying. And 85% of our ICU patients today - and our ICUs are full; they're at 150% capacity - these people are dying who are unvaccinated. So we wish it was beyond politics and more about what we can do right for the patients.

KHALID: You know, you say you're waiting to decide what to do. But what really are your options? Is it to lobby the state? You know, is it to lobby the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services? Is it to go to court?

ELLNER: We're having Zoom calls with our state legislators. We're also talking to others out there about, what if this does get to a legal challenge? And how should we navigate through that? So I would say, first and foremost, we're doing our part to make sure that the vaccine is available and that the best information on the science behind it is out there. And then we're talking to our elected officials about helping us educate the public about how important this is to get us through the pandemic.

KHALID: All right. That's Dr. Scott Ellner. He's CEO of Billings Clinic, a health care network in the state of Montana. Thank you, Dr. Ellner, very much. We really appreciate it.

ELLNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.