A bill that would ban discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status was passed by the Alaska Senate on Wednesday in a move to restrict state service providers and private companies from requiring the life-saving vaccine.
That bill, sponsored by Eagle River Republican Senator Lora Reinbold, would make it illegal for the state to withhold services based on COVID-19 vaccination status, such public education, or assisted living in Pioneer Homes. The bill would also ban private companies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment.
Reinbold repeatedly has false information about the effects of COVID-19 vaccines and is prohibited from Alaska Airlines flights for failing to comply with the company’s pandemic mask policy. She said the goal of the bill is to avoid discriminating against people who refuse to be vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus because of the vaccine’s potential health risks. Those have been the risks proved to be minimal.
The measure passed the Senate by 13-6 votes, gaining the support of Democratic senators Tom Begich and Elvi Gray-Jackson along with most Republicans.
But it has “a low probability of success,” in the House, according to Rep. Ivy Plywood, D-Anchorage. She said the state already allows people to get exclusions for vaccination requirements based on health conditions or religious beliefs.
Rep. Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, who co-chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee, called it a “problematic bill” and indicated she would likely not prioritize it during the session.
“We like to prioritize bills that can have the most meaningful effect and that are actually likely to be passed and implemented,” Snyder said.
Opponents of the bill raised concerns about its impact on private companies that would no longer be allowed to impose vaccine requirements on their employees, including health clinics, hospitals and nursing homes, where such requirements could protect vulnerable patients.
According to a rule announced by President Joe Biden last year, health care providers who receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding must requires their employees to be vaccinated. This federal rule covers many hospitals in the state, including the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence, and would replace any conflicting state laws. But a Biden rule requiring private employers with 100 or more employees to vaccinate all workers or test them regularly for the virus was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.
“Any mandate or requirement should be a rare thing,” Senator Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said on Senate floor Wednesday. But a complete ban on vaccine mandates “is a bad idea,” he added.
Stopping medical facilities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines to their staff would put patients at risk and lead to potential staff shortages due to possible coronavirus outbreaks among staff, Kiehl said.
“This bill is bad for business. This bill will endanger Alaskan’s lives. This bill will make it harder to end this pandemic,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, voted in favor of the bill on Wednesday after amending it at a meeting of the Senate Health and Social Affairs Committee earlier this month to include a intent clause that “every person should have the right to choose their own medical intervention.”
“This is about a person’s right to make their own medical intervention decisions and the right to privacy,” Begich said during the committee meeting. These arguments are often used to defend the right to access abortion – another difficult issue of medical freedom that is often supported by the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Late. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, the only Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, also voted in favor of the bill, citing her support for individuals’ right to make their own medical decisions.
“I firmly believe in autonomy, the right to choose what is right for oneself,” she said. “This bill also deals with discrimination based on vaccination status. To me, discrimination in any form is unacceptable.”
Still, she said it was “a difficult decision” to vote for the bill because of concerns about how it could harm vulnerable individuals and businesses.
When asked if she supported the bill because it contains language that could be used to defend access to abortion, Gray-Jackson declined to comment. She has said that if she was elected to the US Senate, she would do so support a law guaranteeing abortion rights.
Alaska’s Legislature is following in the footsteps of several other Republican-controlled states that have passed laws that make it harder to require vaccinations for employment or to access services. Last year, Montana became the first state adopt a bill prohibition of discrimination on the basis of vaccine status, embedding the rule in the State Human Rights Act. But in some Democrat-controlled states and cities across the country, evidence of vaccination has been required during the pandemic to gain access to services, including restaurants, gyms and major events.
Reporters James Brooks and Annie Berman contributed to this story.