October 31st marked the end of the extension granted by the Prowers Medical Center for each employee who was denied an exemption from getting the COVID-19 vaccination. PMC employees, along with other health care employees statewide were able to file for an exemption from the vaccine for either religious or medical reasons.
The unvaccinated staff of PMC was then left with the decision to either get vaccinated under coercion from the State and Federal Government, or face termination. The PMC Board of Directors issued a statement on September 30, 2021, after a large crowed showed up at their normal monthly meeting and spoke during the public comment period.
“This was an emotionally charged meeting and the board heard and whole heartedly listened to every single comment. This was not a public forum, but rather a public meeting. Public meetings have a specific time slot where community members are allowed to speak for a certain time, in this case, 3 minutes. This was never intended to be a question-and-answer session, but our board was very accommodative and answered what questions we could.”
It was the decision of the Board of Directors to outsource the decision-making of whether to approve or deny any exemptions from the vaccine to a third-party.
“The administrative team consulted with many other hospitals, large and small, as well as our attorney and many other professionals in the medical field to find out what other hospitals were doing. This helped create our policy and procedures, which included hiring an external panel of board-certified Medical Doctors. This panel reviewed every single request. This process was in line with many other hospitals throughout the state. Neither our administrative team, nor the board of directors had any part in the decision-making process of these exemption requests.”
After a nearly 3-hour meeting and listening to dozens of community members and employees speak the board went into executive session to discuss moving forward. It was decided that the board would extend the unvaccinated individual’s employment until October 31 in hopes that by then they would have more guidance from the State Board of Health.
The public statement went on to say, “To be clear, the exemption requests that were denied are not changing, and if those employees are still not vaccinated by 10/31/2021, and/or, if the rules of the state mandate do not change by this date, their employment will terminate on 10/31/2021.”
Fast forward one month and the unvaccinated were in the same jeopardy they were in before the September board meeting, only this time they knew that there was nothing they could do to persuade them to change their policy. However, the Board of Directors made special accommodations for the pregnant female employees who wished to stay unvaccinated through their pregnancies.
On Wednesday October 27 the PMC Board of Directors met in regular session, prior to the meeting there was a notice sent out for anyone who wished to attend the meeting stating that due to the rapid rise in COVID cases the board made the decision to not allow the public to attend the meeting in person and instead sent out a link for virtual or phone attendance.
A few dozen people did indeed call into the meeting, but when the board opened the meeting for public comment, the line was silent. A moment was given to be sure that there was no one who wished to speak, but again, the line, silent. One might wonder, if that silence was a statement that hope has been lost and that there is nothing left to fight for.
A public statement from CEO Bryant was issued October 28 titled Service Line Update for Prowers Medical Center and it states in-part that, “We believe that providing safe, quality patient care is of paramount importance. The pandemic has taken a toll on health care personnel, leading to burnout, fatigue, early retirement, and others leaving the field of health care entirely. The resulting shortage of health care workers combined with the new vaccine mandate, has only aggravated the situation. Since we have not yet reached the 100% threshold, we have had to evaluate our ability to provide our current services in a safe manner. We will not compromise on patient safety. Service lines where our staffing is particularly affected, may be altered until such a time that we believe the staffing is sufficient to meet our standards.”
As of the date of this notice 90% of the staff were vaccinated, and according to Karen Bryant in a follow-up email dated November 1, there were 13 employees that either quit or were terminated due to refusal to vaccinate.
“One of the most difficult decisions that we have had to make is to put a temporary pause on OB delivery. This will require patients to seek our assistance with transition of care to another facility for delivery of their child. We intend to keep prenatal and outpatient services in the Women’s Health Clinic available as we currently have OB/GYN Physician coverage scheduled and available to our patients. However, until the hospital is safely able to re-establish OB delivery services, patients will need to transition prenatal care to an alternative OB/GYN Provider. Prowers Medical Center will continue to provide emergency OB services to the best of our ability. We will continue to recruit additional team members and re-evaluate our progress along the way so we can re-open full-service obstetrics as quickly as possible.”
The statement goes on to say that “We are modifying our patient appointment schedules with our Providers in our Rural Health Clinic. This may result in an occasional delay on the time frame in which you will be scheduled to meet with a health care provider. All modalities within our Imaging Services Department will continue to be provided, but some will be on a modified schedule for a period of time. Our Emergency Department remains fully operational to meet your emergent health care needs.”
Shelby Casper, FNP a medical provider at the Rural Health Clinic, who made the decision to step away instead of waiting for her termination letter, and her husband Kyle, have decided to open their own independent practice in Wiley, County Line Medical Clinic. As the Federal Mandate reads now, independent practices are exempt from the vaccine mandate, and there has been no official release of information regarding Medicaid and Medicare so they will be able to accept those as forms of insurance.
The County Line Medical Clinic is not set to open until January 2022, and with the rise in not only COVID-19 cases but flu and RSV for infants and young children, the likely hood that getting a same day appointment at the Rural Health Clinic are slim. The opening of a new medical clinic in Wiley will be a blessing to the community who is so impacted by the short staff and loss of services at PMC to the area who depends on them for their healthcare needs.
After talking to a few members of the terminated staff and staff who resigned before the deadline we have learned that the Rural Healthcare Clinic has lost a total of 6 unvaccinated employees, and two employees quit because of the staffing demands that would be placed upon them.
We also learned that two unvaccinated employees from the OB delivery unit have separated from PMC. Registered Nurse and Eads local Angela Hoffman was working PRN in this unit for the last year and said that she and other PRN employees were put on a mandatory long-term leave of absence because the unit has been put on “pause”. This unit was already down one member and losing another two put too much of a strain on the department.
In her follow-up email interview CEO Bryant stated that, “There were no letters of termination delivered to our team members. Individuals have gone through the normal Exit Interview process for separation of employment.” These exit interview documents states “The separation of employment due to non-compliance of Vaccination Policy following the Colorado Board of Health ruling of COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate.”
Bryant did confirm with us that in the case that state or federal court were to overturn this mandate or if the individuals choose to vaccinate in the future, they are all eligible for rehire.
“To be clear, Prowers Medical Center will remain open to provide quality healthcare to the communities served. The Management Team and Board of Directors of Prowers Medical Center are committed to keep service lines open and available to the extent possible. Our most immediate task is to retain the team members we have in place and recruit additional workers as soon as possible. Until we are successful with our recruitment efforts, we will be required to make some modifications to various service line schedules and even press “pause” on others. Our team will regroup, rebuild, and restructure where necessary so we can continue to provide our patients and community with quality, safe health care.”
Our rural healthcare workers have been on the front lines fighting COVID-19 for more than a year and a half, and now we have a significant number of those individuals who have stood up for their right to choose what is best for their bodies, and are left to wonder if they will be eligible for unemployment benefits or if they will qualify for public assistance while they look for a job that does not require its employees to submit to the vaccine.