Lauer backs bill ending state emergency

INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus joined a large number of legislators in co-authoring a bill to end the public health emergency set in place by Gov. Eric Holcomb as a pandemic response, as well as to ensure exemptions are made to federal vaccine mandates.

Lauer is listed as one of 55 co-authors of House Bill 1001, filed Monday with the intent to help end the statewide public health emergency, require businesses to accept medical and religious exemptions from federal vaccination mandates and recognize natural immunity if vaccination is required as a condition of employment.

These measures were requested by Holcomb last month. The original bill author is Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne.

Holcomb signed two executive orders Monday to continue the public health emergency and the executive order for provisions that address the impact of COVID-19. Extending the executive orders allows key items to remain in place that protect Hoosiers.

Holcomb outlined three provisions that necessitate the extension of a public health emergency and executive order. First, Indiana is eligible to receive enhanced federal funding for Medicaid programs to help cover the increased costs of 500,000 Hoosiers who have enrolled in the programs because of the pandemic. So far, the state has received $972 million in enhanced funding. The state would lose more than $175 million in future funding through March 2022 and about 250,000 Hoosiers would lose partial or full Medicaid coverage if the state public health emergency ends before the federal public health emergency.

The executive orders allow 200,000 eligible households to receive an additional $95 per month in federal food assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) emergency allotment provides nutrition for more than 600,000 Hoosiers. In addition, the state’s public health emergency allows the state health commissioner to serve as the statewide ordering physician for those who choose to be vaccinated, including children age 5 and older. This offers easy access to vaccines through pharmacies, local health departments and other health facilities.

The original mandates issued by President Joe Biden’s administration state that companies with at least 100 employees have to require vaccination or weekly testing. But two weeks ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration decided to put that mandate on hold.

Another mandate states federal contractors and health care facilities have to require vaccination without a testing option.

Under guidelines established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employees can ask to be exempted from being vaccinated because of sincerely-held religious beliefs or due to health reasons. However, employers don’t have to grant those exemptions if a non-vaccinated person posing a direct threat to others in the workplace, or if accommodating that person would create an undue burden.

“If you look at the mandates coming from the federal government, what I’m seeing and hearing from constituents are people who feel they are in an impossible position,” Lauer said. “They feel they must either take the vaccine when a physician doesn’t feel it’s right for them – and that’s wrong. People also need to put food on the table. A person should not be fired over this.”

HB 1001 would ensure Hoosiers will continue receiving the same federal reimbursements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid, according to Lauer. The proposed legislation also states Indiana residents would be protected from losing existing benefits. In addition, the state’s ability to hold voluntary community vaccination clinics will be maintained.

Conservative lawmakers in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wyoming and North Dakota have already completed special sessions and passed bills aimed at nullifying new federal mandates.

Lauer described the vaccination mandates as “overreach,” “unconstitutional” and “just politics.”

Indiana Republicans has originally planned on filing an almost identical bill and passing it on Nov. 29. However, they decided to delay after facing pushback during a joint committee meeting.

Representatives of the Indiana Medical Association, Indiana Hospital Association and other medical groups argued the proposal would discourage attempts to increase the state’s COVID vaccination rate and limit hospitalizations and deaths.

Indiana State Medical Association spokesman Dr. Stephen Tharp said such measures will prolong the pandemic and harm the economy, health care system and society further. The state needs to promote vaccinations as a way to end the pandemic – not pass language that makes it easier to opt out of a vaccine mandate, he said.

Major business organizations argued against the proposed vaccination exemptions, which employers would have to accept from workers “without further inquiry.” Those organizations include the Indiana Manufacturers Association and the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The head of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce said the proposal “significantly discourages” employers from requiring vaccines even if they believe it is best for their employees and customers. Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar also said it would be too expensive for employers to administer weekly testing for all of their unvaccinated workers.

Sharon Brett of the American Civil Liberties Union says there’s no freedom of religion provision in the First Amendment that allows a person to put another person in danger by practicing their religion.

When asked how many local employers are threatening to fire unvaccinated workers, Lauer said firms in Bartholomew County are taking a reasonable and common-sense approach.

“We don’t see that here,” Lauer said. “But there are a few companies in Indiana – not in my district – that have taken a hard-line approach and are firing people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.