With nearly 20 health organizations already registered against the bill, a Wisconsin legislator made his case for legislation that would outlaw discrimination against employees who refuse a flu shot at a public hearing Wednesday.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said at the Assembly Committee on Health hearing that he had a constituent who worked in a local hospital who was not given an exemption to her hospital’s requirement for employees to get flu shots while she was seven months pregnant.
“I do not believe you should be forced to take a vaccination into your body that you object to,” he said.
Thiesfeldt added a hospital in his community that enforced a similar policy for all hospital employees, regardless of whether they had patient contact, dismissed employees who refused the vaccination unless it was a religious exemption or for a specific health risk.
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, added the bill would “stand up” to drug companies and hospitals that have “made a lot of mistakes,” by allowing individuals to refuse flu vaccinations as a personal choice.
Current law does not require flu vaccinations, but many hospitals statewide have implemented policies requiring them for employees.
Committee member Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said she questioned whether health care professionals have extra responsibility to ensure their own health to protect their patients.
Thiesfeldt said he understands why health care providers are against the bill because of patient safety concerns, but the providers also have a responsibility to their employees.
“I will stand up for the personal liberties of those [individuals],” he said. “They should not have to sacrifice their jobs or careers.”
Renee O’Day, assistant deputy secretary for the Department of Health Services, said flu vaccinations have been shown to reduce absences from work among hospital employees, reduce patient mortality and cut costs for hospitals.
O’Day added the bill could prevent hospitals from improving patient safety.
James Conway, a physician with UW Health who specializes in infectious diseases, said while there are many myths about flu shots, the vaccinations are safe for the average person.
While some elderly, infants and pregnant women do not respond well to vaccinations, Conway said giving the vaccine to an average person not only protects the person but also positively affects the surrounding community.
Conway said he had a patient named Emily, a young child, who was in the hospital for another illness, but died after getting the flu from one of her caretakers in the hospital who was not vaccinated.
“This would be a major step backward from a public health standpoint,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as the state that pioneered [the bill].”
However, Committee Chair Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Lake, said that particular child was a poor example to use against the bill as any person in a hospital is more likely to be infected because of its environment.
Severson, a physician, added while he favors flu shots for himself and his family, in his role as a legislator he must balance the freedom of individuals to make their own health care choices.