Jennifer Gross hedshot
Ohio Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester Township).

An Ohio bill targeting vaccine passports is written broadly enough that it could weaken the state’s vaccination laws for all vaccines — not just COVID-19 ones — and place senior housing providers at odds with federal requirements.

Republican lawmakers are backing House Bill 248, the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act, which would ban residential care facilities, nursing homes, healthcare providers, state and local governments, schools and other businesses from mandating or requesting that an individual receive a vaccine, and they also would be banned from asking about an individual’s vaccination status. 

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester Township) and co-sponsored by 15 other GOP lawmakers, also would prevent governments, insurers or businesses from offering vaccine incentives. 

Under the proposed legislation, Ohioans would be able to skip any vaccination by making a written or verbal statement. It also would repeal requirements for college students to be vaccinated against hepatitis B and meningitis before living in dormitories.

“It is the policy of this state that the health choice and privacy of individuals are paramount and shall remain so under all circumstances, even in the presence of emergencies,” the bill reads.

Any organization that violated the proposed bill could have a civil action brought against it. 

Healthcare opposition

Two industry associations representing assisted living communities in the Buckeye State are part of a larger coalition of healthcare provider groups opposed to the bill.

“They’re expected to follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Ohio Health Care Association Executive Director Pete Van Runkle said of its membership. “We’ve got pretty clear direction that’s where the CDC wants to go. You treat people differently if they are vaccinated or not, and for very good reason.”

Van Runkle, who submitted written testimony for an upcoming hearing on the bill, also pointed to recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance that views vaccination status as a “clear dividing line” in regard to precautions. “To do that, you must be able to identify who is and isn’t vaccinated, and that’s something this bill would prohibit,” he said.

“We are in this business to take care of and protect our residents,” Van Runkle told McKnight’s Senior Living. “And anything that is going to say you can’t do that is bad, even if it wasn’t for all of these federal guidelines and regulations.”

Although the majority of senior living and care providers in Ohio are not mandating the COVID-19 vaccination, Van Runkle said it should be up to providers to make that call, equating it to protecting residents and staff.

Patrick Schwartz, LeadingAge Ohio director of strategic communications, told McKnight’s Senior Living that vaccines brought “well-deserved freedom and security back to residents.”

“Aging services providers fought COVID-19 tooth-and-nail for almost a year without an available vaccine, and the daily struggle and toll during that time was enormous,” he said. “The facts speak to the danger of COVID-19 for unvaccinated residents of long-term care facilities.”

Vaccination status, he said, dictates much of what occurs within a facility, including testing frequency, dining and activity experiences, and how staff can move about.

“If Ohio were to move forward with blocking these disclosures — and if it were able to be implemented without judicial intervention — providers would have to choose whether to follow state or federal policy,” Schwartz said. “This information is crucial not just to operations, but, moreover, to protect the lives of those we serve.”

National attention

Hearings on the bill have drawn national attention due to testimony on conspiracy theories and misinformation on the ability of the vaccine to magnetize people.

The pandemic has reinvigorated the anti-vaccine movement nationwide, with lawmakers in almost 40 states backing bills to restrict COVID-19 vaccine mandates or vaccine passports, according to Politico.

At least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — have enacted legislation to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates. At least 11 states have banned the use of vaccine passports, and another 31 states are considering similar legislation. Arkansas and Montana have adopted measures against making COVID-19 vaccination status a condition of employment in certain settings. In Texas, assisted living providers are exempt from an executive order prohibiting the requirement of a “vaccine passport” for services, and in Alabama, assisted living communities were exempt from a bill banning vaccine passports.

Gross, the state representative and a nurse practitioner, compared businesses requiring proof of vaccination as “eerily similar” to Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow badges when she introduced the bill, according to the Ohio Capital Journal. 

“Without the exemption provisions this bill provides, the notion of a vaccine passport could easily lead to a class system in Ohio where segregation and discrimination will proliferate,” she said in a statement when introducing the legislation. “This is a matter of freedom. The purpose of this legislation is to allow people to choose to do what they feel is best for their own body and protect individuals from any consequences or hardships for choosing one way or the other.”

The bill is pending in the Ohio House Health Committee.