scales of justice and law books

Several senior living and care organizations and the state of Maine are being sued by a national religious organization over the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Genesis Healthcare, Genesis Healthcare of Maine, Maine Health, MaineGeneral Health and the Northern Light Health Foundation, all of which employ plaintiffs in the lawsuit, are among the defendants named in the legal action filed by Liberty Counsel of Orlando, FL. Liberty is representing more than 2,000 healthcare workers — identified as Jane, John, Jack and Joan Does — across the state in fighting the requirement, which calls for healthcare workers in the state to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. Although the state mandate provides for medical exemptions, it does not provide for religious exemptions.

The lawsuit argues that the governor and state defendants are violating the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. The suit also names the governor, the state commissioner of public health, and the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as defendants.

Kennett Square, PA-based Genesis Healthcare operates almost 250 senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities in 23 states and employs approximately 40,000 workers. In Maine, Genesis has 11 facilities, according to a corporate profile. MaineHealth operates assisted living and memory care communities as well as SNFs, and home health and hospice programs, in addition to hospitals, clinics, labs and medical practices. The MaineGeneral Health system includes facilities offering assisted living, dementia care and skilled nursing and in addition has hospitals and physician practices. The Northern Light Health system includes two continuing care centers providing long-term care, as well as hospitals, a pharmacy, a laboratory, and home health and hospice programs.

Spokespersons for the organizations contacted by McKnight’s Senior Living said that the companies could not comment on pending litigation.

Liberty argues that healthcare workers are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which provides for religious exemptions and accommodations; that COVID shots cannot be mandatory under Title VII; that the mandate violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment; and the governor is displaying “willful disregard of federal protections” that violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to make Maine law supersede federal law.

The religious organization is seeking a temporary restraining order against the mandate, as well as attorney fees and damages for lost wages for the healthcare workers it is representing.

“All plaintiffs seek in this lawsuit is to be able to continue to provide the healthcare they have provided to patients for their entire careers, and to do so under the same protective measures that have sufficed for them to be considered superheroes for the last 18 months,” the suit reads. 

Judge Jon D. Levy held a brief hearing Thursday. A status conference is scheduled for Tuesday, at which time a preliminary injunction hearing will be scheduled for early September.

Another state issues mandate

The Pine Tree State is not the only state with an inoculation requirement.

Illinois on Thursday became the latest state to mandate that its healthcare workers, including assisted living workers, be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested at least once a week. Gov. J.B. Pritzker also reinstituted a statewide mandate requiring masks indoors beginning today.

LeadingAge Illinois President and CEO Angela Schnepf said the organization supports the requirement.

“We appreciate that the governor’s mandate includes all healthcare settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, etc., versus selecting only long-term care settings,” Schnepf told McKnight’s Senior Living. “As you can imagine, residents can be exposed to COVID-19 through a myriad of ways, and addressing safety and health in all of those settings is vitally important to preventing the spread of COVID-19 within any community.”

National associations representing the long-term care industry recently criticized a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate issued Aug. 18 because it is limited to nursing homes and does not pertain to other healthcare settings.

LeadingAge is maintaining a list of state vaccine mandates.

Organizational mandates increasing

The lawsuit in Maine comes as an increasing number of senior living organizations are implementing their own vaccine mandates as a condition of employment for workers.

United Methodist Communities announced last week that all of its employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 or will be considered “voluntarily resigned” from their positions. 

Saying that its employee vaccination rate is already “significantly above” the national average at 75%, UMC President and CEO Larry Carlson said in a statement that the delta variant “makes it imperative that we foster a community positioned to best protect those who live and work with us.”

Additional senior living companies requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees include Aegis Living, ALG Senior, American House Senior Living Communities, The Arbor Co., Asbury Communities, Ascension Living, Atria Senior Living, Benchmark Senior Living, Brightview Senior Living, Brookdale Senior Living, CareOne, Civitas Senior Living, Enlivant, Episcopal Retirement Services, ER Senior Management, Five Star Senior Living, the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, Harbor Retirement Associates (for new employees), Holiday Retirement, Homestead Assisted Living, Immanuel Senior Living, IntegraCare, Integral Senior Living, JEA Senior Living, Jewish Home Family, Juniper Communities, LCS, Masonicare, Meridian Senior Living, Pacific Retirement Services, Phoebe Ministries, Presbyterian Senior Living, PruittHealth, Retirement Center Management, Silverado, Sunrise Senior Living, Transforming Age, Trilogy Health Services, Trinity Health, Vi Living, Wesley Enhanced Living and Western Home Communities.