Idaho lawmakers eye special session on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican state senators plan to meet this week to discuss the possibility of a special session after three large health care providers announced policies requiring employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, the top Senate Republican said Monday.

Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder said Republican senators will meet online Friday morning amid growing calls for a special session on employers requiring coronavirus vaccines.

Winder said he hopes to “find out where everyone is at and what their level of interest is in coming back. At this stage, I don’t really have a good feeling on it. I want to make sure we don’t take away from the contract rights of health care providers. There are always two sides to every story.”

The House never fully adjourned earlier this year under a plan to allow Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke to simply call lawmakers back to the Statehouse in Boise without needing Republican Gov. Brad Little’s OK.

Typically, only governors can call special sessions. Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, said Little has received no formal requests for a special session.

There is some disagreement among legal experts over whether the Legislature is still in session because the Senate officially adjourned, while the House only recessed. But lawmakers appear to be proceeding on the belief that the Legislature is only recessed.

Winder said if Bedke calls House lawmakers back, they could vote to call the Senate back, giving senators three days to return to Boise. Bedke didn’t respond to a text message from The Associated Press. Winder said Bedke, like him, was likely trying to gauge the interest among lawmakers to reconvene the Legislature.

Primary Health Group, Saint Alphonsus Health System and St. Luke’s Health System last week announced the vaccine requirement ahead of the busy cold and flu season and as coronavirus variants spread in parts of the U.S. Health officials in Idaho said the vaccine requirements are intended to keep health care facilities open and employees and patients safe.

Also on Monday, six Republican lawmakers, all from Nampa in southwestern Idaho where the health care organizations have facilities, announced they’d back legislation opposing employer-required COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“We will support legislation to properly protect the physical freedoms of Idaho employees from mandatory COVID vaccinations,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug, one of the six, said he is also among a number of lawmakers calling for the Legislature to meet in a special session.

“I’m hearing from professionals who are being forced to take an invasive injection that they don’t trust,” Skaug said.

Other lawmakers taking part in the announcement on Monday were Sens. Todd Lakey and Jeff Agenbroad, and Reps. Rick Youngblood, Brent Crane and Ben Adams.

Far-right Idaho Republicans have been calling for a special session. But Monday marked the first time a group of more mainstream Idaho Republicans publicly voiced support for legislation concerning mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations by employers.

It’s not clear what type of legislation lawmakers might consider.

More than 100 employees at a Houston hospital system sued over its requirement that staff be vaccinated after they were suspended without pay for failing to follow the rule. Last month, a federal judge threw out the lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital system, telling the employees that they were free to seek employment elsewhere if they wanted to skip the vaccine, but that a basic part of any job is that employers can place limits on worker behavior in exchange for pay.

Skaug and Winder both said potential Idaho legislation could be written with the intent to hold health care organizations responsible if workers get sick from the vaccine.

“If you’re an employer and you’re going to force people to have a vaccine, than you are liable for the results,” Skaug said. “That seems only fair.”

Skaug was among a group of lawmakers who contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. He recovered and said he’s considering getting the vaccine, which health professionals say can bolster natural immunity for those previously infected.

Winder said he received the vaccine earlier this year.

More than 195,000 cases of coronavirus have been detected in Idaho since the pandemic began, and more than 2,000 people have died from COVID-19.