Alaska Legislature

Bill limiting COVID-19 vaccine requirements passes the Alaska Senate, but it faces slim odds in the House

A bill that would ban discrimination on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination status passed in the Alaska Senate Wednesday in a move to limit state service providers and private businesses from requiring the life-saving vaccine.

The bill, sponsored by Eagle River Republican Sen. 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 businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition for employment.

Reinbold has repeated false information about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and is banned from Alaska Airlines flights for failing to adhere to the company’s pandemic mask policy. She said the goal of the bill is to avoid discriminating against people who refuse to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus over the vaccine’s potential health risks. Those risks have been proven to be minimal.

The measure passed the Senate in a 13-6 vote, garnering support from Democratic senators Tom Begich and Elvi Gray-Jackson alongside most Republicans.

But it has “a low probability of success,” in the House, according to Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage. She said the state already allows people to get exclusions for vaccination requirements based on health circumstances 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 was not likely to prioritize it during the session.

“We like to prioritize bills that can have the most meaningful impact and that actually are likely to pass and be implemented,” Snyder said.

Those who opposed the bill raised concern over its impact on private businesses that would no longer be allowed to enact vaccine requirements for their employees, including health clinics, hospitals and assisted living facilities where such requirements can protect vulnerable patients.

Under a rule announced by President Joe Biden last year, health care providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding are to require their workers to be vaccinated. That federal rule covers many hospitals in the state, including the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence, and would supersede any conflicting state legislation. 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 kind of mandate or requirement should be a rare thing,” Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. But a complete ban on vaccine mandates “is a bad idea,” he added.

Stopping medical facilities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines for 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 Alaskans’ 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 Wednesday after amending it in a Senate Health and Social Services Committee meeting earlier this month to include an intent clause stating that “every person should have the right to choose their own medical interventions.”

“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. Those arguments are often used to defend the right to abortion access – another embattled question of medical freedom that often draws support from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, the sole Democrat running for U.S. Senate, also voted in favor of the bill, citing her support for individuals’ right to make their own medical decisions.

“I thoroughly believe in autonomy, the right to choose what is right for oneself,” she said. “This bill also addresses discrimination based on vaccination status. For me discrimination in any form is unacceptable.”

Still, she said the it was “a tough decision” to vote in favor of the bill because of concerns over ways it may hurt vulnerable individuals and businesses.

When asked if she supported the bill because it includes language that could be used to defend abortion access, Gray-Jackson declined to comment. She has said that if elected to the U.S. Senate, she would support a law guaranteeing abortion rights.

The Alaska Legislature is following in the footsteps of several other Republican-controlled states that have passed laws making it harder to require vaccinations for employment or to access services. Montana last year became the first state to pass a bill banning discrimination on the basis of vaccine status, embedding the rule in the state’s human rights law. But in some Democrat-controlled states and cities across the country, proof of vaccination has been required during the pandemic to access services including restaurants, gyms, and large events.

Reporters James Brooks and Annie Berman contributed to this story.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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