Covid-19 bill dead as hospitals warn politically motivated changes could make pandemic worse

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

A largely inoffensive bill to help hospitals and other health care providers ramp up hiring to meet the surge in covid-19 cases is dead after a change—and looming changes—proposed by far-right Republicans stood to undermine efforts to combat the pandemic.

The announcement was made by the bipartisan House Majority Coalition today following Sunday night’s passage of an amendment that would require hospitals give designated visitors nearly unfettered access to visit patients. It’s a change that stems from complaints over hospitals limiting access on and off throughout the pandemic, a measure that hospital groups say is unfortunately necessary to help combat the pandemic.

The amendment was supported by all minority Republicans as well as Reps. Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River), Sara Rasmussen (R-Anchorage), Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) and Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage). Several more amendments were expected to be offered and looked likely to pass. Shortly after the amendment was approved on Sunday night, the House voted to return the bill to the House Rules Committee. Typically that’s a sign the entire bill no longer has the support for passage.

The same turn also happened in the Senate where a slate of amendments aimed at poking holes in vaccine requirements initially sunk the bill before it was revived with the hope that the House could salvage it.

It turns out those hopes were misplaced.

The House Majority Coalition’s announcement said that consulting with health providers and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (and likely seeing that it couldn’t keep a lid on the anti-vaccine amendments), it was determined “that the bill in its current form is more detrimental than beneficial in enabling hospitals to address the COVID emergency. On that advice, the bill will not be sent back to the floor.”

“SB 3006 was never about vaccinations or mandates,” said House Speaker Louise Stutes in a prepared statement accompanying the announcement, “it was only intended to provide relief to our frontline doctors and nurses, who have now told us in no uncertain terms that the changes made to this bill interfere with their ability to manage the pandemic and ensure safety of their patients. It’s extremely disappointing that politics got in the way of this bill passing, but we won’t support legislation that harms the efforts of healthcare workers confronting the public health emergency head on.”

In the Senate, legislators narrowly approved a slate of amendments that would have allowed people to opt out of vaccine requirements by simply believing their immune system is better than a vaccine. Another would have allowed a positive vaccine test—including a false positive test—in place of proof of vaccination. Those amendments had been removed by the House Health and Social Services Committee, which had returned the bill to its narrowly targeted format, but stood to come back on the House floor.

The House only made it through four amendments, several of which were unique to the House like one that would have specifically banned telemedicine providers from prescribing emergency contraceptive medicine like Plan B. While most of the underlying bill was only temporary in nature, the change that would have allowed patients a designated visitor who could visit with almost no limitations would have been made permanent.

It was met with stout opposition from health care providers who said it would inject politics into health care decisions.

“While the amendment may have been well intentioned, it represents an attempt to remove this type of decision-making from highly qualified medical professionals with clinical training in hospitals,” said a statement from the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, whose call for the governor to issue a disaster declaration in order to help ease staffing problems helped get this issue in front of the Legislature. “Unfortunately, at times during the pandemic, in response to each unique community situation, hospitals have been forced to adjust visitation guidelines to balance preventing the spread of COVID-19 with the needs of patients and their loved ones. … No one likes these limits, especially our health care providers, but the health and safety of patients, families, and caregivers is the top priority of hospitals and nursing homes in Alaska.”

In an interview with Alaska’s News Source, the group’s CEO, Jared Kosin, was even more blunt about the situation.

“Our hospitals today are responding to a crisis. We’re not going to support efforts to restrict vaccination and restrict mitigation efforts,” he added. “It’s not even worth it right now.”

The special session is set to expire on Tuesday night.

Much of the changes requested by the health care providers could be implemented by Gov. Mike Dunleavy through an emergency declaration, a measure that the governor has refused to entertain heading into next year’s election.

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