Hospital workers' choice: Flu shots or ax
Melissa Burden/ The Detroit News
Most Metro Detroit health systems will require employees to get flu shots this year, and some say they'll fire workers who don't.
Such policies are growing increasingly common nationwide, and this year more Michigan systems such as Royal Oak-based Beaumont Health System and Munson Healthcare in Traverse City are mandating shots for the first time, as recommended recently by the American Hospital Association.
In most cases, health systems pay, offering free shots to employees during work hours.
Not all employees welcome the policies. At least two Michigan groups are meeting with state legislators urging them to outlaw tying continued employment to vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for years has recommended health care workers receive an annual influenza vaccine, but only about 62 percent of U.S. health care workers do — one of the statistics that prompted the hospital group's recommendation.
"It's about protecting our patients," said Nancy Schlichting, who sits on the national association board and is CEO of the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System. Henry Ford implemented a mandatory shot or mask requirement in 2010 for workers providing patient care, and had a 90 percent compliance rate.
"If you don't have a flu shot, you're potentially exposing a compromised patient. I mean, that's a quality issue," Schlichting said.
But Barbara Skurnowicz, founder and president of Franklin-based HealthCare Professionals for Vaccine Choice, disputes that notion.
"They don't have the science or the evidence this is effective," she said.
Safety studies cited
Influenza leads to about 150,000 hospital admissions and 24,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the hospital group. It says studies show that flu vaccinations among health care workers can prevent patient illness and death, and reduce illness and absenteeism among workers.
Last flu season, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System hospitals in Ann Arbor, Saline and Howell required more than 6,000 employees receive flu shots and vaccinations against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, said Dr. Lakshmi Halasyamani, chief medical officer for the three hospitals.
"For us, it's really a patient safety initiative," Halasyamani said.
The Detroit Medical Center, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center, St. John Providence Health System and the University of Michigan Health System last year all implemented mandatory flu shot policies for employees working in patient care settings. If workers are noncompliant, most policies include discipline, up to termination.
With its mandatory policy in place, the three St. Joseph hospitals boosted their worker flu vaccination rates from 40 percent to 50 percent a year to 98 percent last year, Halasyamani said.
About 50 to 60 people who had a medical or other approved reason did not receive the vaccine, she said; a handful who refused the vaccine "chose to no longer work at our organization because they were not willing to meet the work requirement."
Karen Bashista said she was fired in January as a registered nurse at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor after refusing the vaccine.
"For an employer to use a vaccine to determine whether or not someone should work there, in my opinion, is wrong," said Bashista, 61, of Green Oak Township who now works in home health care. "Vaccines are potentially dangerous to people."
Bashista, who said she plans to sue the hospital, said she chose not to get the vaccine for religious reasons and because she didn't know how it would affect her. She said her mother had a serious reaction to a flu vaccine.
"Because I'm 61 years old, I'm not willing to take a chance," she said. "I don't get sick very often."
Bashista said she gave her bosses a letter from her minister supporting her decision. St. Joseph Mercy gave her several chances to get the vaccine, Bashista said, but eventually issued a termination letter saying she was fired for misconduct and for failing to follow a mandatory work requirement.
Most systems give workers a chance to opt out for medical reasons such as allergic reactions or religious beliefs. At Beaumont, where the policy is new this year, flu shots are mandatory for health care workers and professionals who have contact with patients, unless the employee has a medical or religious reason. Workers have until Jan. 16 to comply and could face termination and/or loss of hospital privileges if they don't.
Bashista said she would have worn a mask if that option had been offered. Halasyamani said that alternative isn't part of St. Joseph Mercy hospitals' policies because monitoring use would become a large management issue.
St. John's policy also does not give workers the option of wearing a mask, but workers with medical issues or religious objections can request an exemption from the flu shot, said Maureen Petrella, a spokeswoman for the system.
'It's a rights issue'
Dearborn-based Oakwood Healthcare Inc.'s policy doesn't go as far as mandating employees get a flu shot or face losing their job, said Scott Spielman, a spokesman for the system.
Oakwood is making free flu shots available for its 10,000 employees, as it did last year, and is asking employees who work in patient care areas to get the vaccine or wear a mask.
Several groups oppose mandatory flu vaccinations, including Service Employees International Union Healthcare of Michigan, which represents some 55,000 health care workers across the state.
SEIU encourages its members, especially those working in higher-risk environments, to voluntarily get the flu vaccine, but argues that mandatory programs are punitive and unnecessary, said Zac Altefogt, communications director for SEIU Healthcare Michigan.
Troy-based Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines and Skurnowicz's health care choice group, is to meet today with state Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, in Lansing about the mandates.
The groups already have met with about five legislators and have more meetings scheduled next week.
"It's a rights issue," said Sue Waltman, founder and president of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, which met earlier this month with a group of Munson employees.
The group is seeking to extend vaccine waiver rights that exist for school children in Michigan to college students and workers, "so that vaccines never become a condition of employment or to become a student," Skurnowicz said.
"You have a right to work at a job without being forced to take a drug," Waltman said.
From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20110831/BIZ/108310390/Hospital-workers’-choice--Flu-shots-or-ax#ixzz1Wb0CUpaP