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Indiana GOP bill would remove the teeth from employer vaccine mandates

Exemptions would include medical reasons authorized by a health professional, religious belief and people who have recovered from COVID-19.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s governor held back Monday from supporting a proposal by fellow Republicans that would force businesses to grant COVID-19 vaccination requirement exemptions without any questions and block similar immunization rules set by state universities.

The proposal, first released Saturday by leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature, would reject an appeal from the state’s largest business organization to leave such decisions up to employers and strike against Indiana University’s student vaccine mandate that a U.S. Supreme Court justice let go into effect.

That proposal includes three administrative actions sought last week by Gov. Eric Holcomb that he said would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020.

“When extending the last state public health emergency for another 30 days, I asked my team to bring me a plan that would allow us to wind it down responsibly. They have presented me a plan that identifies three key items that must be preserved if I am to responsibly allow the state public health emergency to expire," Holcomb said in a statement released Nov. 16.

Holcomb said those changes would protect Hoosiers by allowing for the continuation of enhanced federal matching funds for Medicaid expenditures, the continuation of the enhanced benefit for those receiving federal food assistance and extend the ability to efficiently vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds. The current public health emergency is set to expire on Dec. 1.

RELATED: Gov. Holcomb willing to lift COVID-19 public health emergency if lawmakers agree to 3 things

Holcomb has been critical of Biden's vaccine mandate for businesses. He has said it should be up to the employers. This GOP proposal would greatly limit an employer on deciding on a mandate and make any such mandate pointless by essentially allowing any and all exemptions to it.

It is not yet clear how Holcomb stands on the GOP proposal for vaccine mandate exemptions.

“I want to hear where they’re coming from, what their thoughts are,” Holcomb said. “We need to talk about the whole bill in detail, as well. But I’m very pleased that they included my three items that show a way for us to land this ship.” 

RELATED: Indiana lawmakers to reconvene, look to end COVID-19 orders

The exemptions the Republican proposal would allow include: a medical reason authorized by a health professional (includes pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy), a written statement from an employee declining on sincerely held religious belief, and people who have recovered from COVID-19.

The proposal says a business must allow employees to claim an exemption “without further inquiry.”

Businesses would be allowed to require COVID-19 testing for employees, but only once a week and at no cost to employees.

The bill is set on an extraordinary fast track for approval, with a single public hearing scheduled for Tuesday at the Statehouse, followed by the House and Senate voting on final approval six days later on Nov. 29.  

In the public hearing Tuesday, numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued against the proposal. 

"Our fundamental position is that businesses and employers are going to be best positioned to make these decisions for their workforce, for business continuity and to keep their customer base safe," said Taylor Hughes with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

They said the proposal wrongly sends a message that the coronavirus pandemic is over at a time when Indiana’s infections and hospitalizations are rising again.