U.S. Supreme Court Lifts Preliminary Injunctions on Healthcare Worker Vaccine Mandate
On January 13, 2022, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) Interim Final Rule (the “Rule”) in a 5-4 decision, staying the preliminary injunctions issued for 24 states by the District Courts for the Eastern District of Missouri and the Western District of Louisiana. Therefore, the CMS vaccine mandate is in full effect for all states except Texas, which was not part of the cases before the Court. The Rule requires nearly all workers at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified facilities—whether medical personnel, volunteers, janitorial staff, or even contractors who service the facilities—to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.
The Court based its holding on two main points. First, the Court held that Congress clearly authorized CMS to put conditions on funding it provides to the Medicare and Medicaid certified facilities. The Court opined that perhaps CMS’s “most basic” function is to ensure that regulated facilities protect the health and safety of their patients, noting that Medicare and Medicaid patients are often some of the most vulnerable to infection and death from COVID-19. Because CMS determined that a vaccine mandate is necessary to protect patient health and safety, the Court held the mandate “fits neatly within the language of the [authorizing] statute.” The Court acknowledged that CMS has never required vaccinations in the past, but attributed this in part to the fact that states typically already require necessary vaccinations like hepatitis B, influenza, and measles for healthcare workers.
Second, the Court held that the mandate is not arbitrary and capricious, and cautioned the district courts that their role is merely to make sure an agency acts within the “zone of reasonableness.” The Court found the administrative record sufficient to explain CMS’s rationale for the mandate and also accepted that getting the vaccine mandate in place ahead of winter and flu season satisfied the “good cause” standard for skipping the notice and comment period.
Healthcare employers subject to the Rule should immediately start implementing vaccine requirements if they have not already. It is anticipated that in all states but Texas, CMS will likely begin enforcement of the vaccine mandate in approximately 30 days. On December 28, 2021, CMS released guidance to state surveyors with enforcement standards to use starting 30 days from the memo, though at the time the memo only applied to the 25 states that were not enjoined. Healthcare employers should also keep in mind that this is not the end of the road: the Court’s holding only means that the CMS vaccine mandate is in force while the 5th and 8th Circuits complete their review of the underlying state challenges to the mandate. While the Supreme Court’s opinion sends a strong message that lower courts should uphold the mandate, there is no guarantee they will do so.
The legal landscape continues to evolve quickly and there is a lack of clear-cut authority or bright line rules on implementation. This article is not intended to be an unequivocal, one-size-fits-all guidance, but instead represents our interpretation of where applicable law currently and generally stands. This article does not address the potential impacts of the numerous other local, state and federal orders that have been issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including, without limitation, potential liability should an employee become ill, requirements regarding family leave, sick pay and other issues.