Senate president tried to create his own death panel while raging against hospital mandates

Masterson’s rhetoric could hobble Kansas in fight against COVID-19

September 9, 2021 3:33 am

Michele Catinella, a nurse practitioner at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from Carmen Pi, a Registered Nurse with American Medical Response on Dec. 16 in Pompano Beach, Florida. The facility, one of the first in the country to do so, vaccinated approximately 170 people, including health care workers and senior citizens. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A decade ago, right-wing politicians lied about “death panels” during debate on the Affordable Care Act. National health care was supposed to lead to draconian choices, with patients paying the ultimate price.

On Wednesday, Senate President Ty Masterson tried to turn the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce into his own kind of death panel, encouraging deadly irresponsibility from the state’s hospital system. His goal? Encouraging hospitals to drop COVID-19 mandates for staff (“whether that’s quarantine policies, testing policies, vaccine policies,” he said). The bait? Some $50 million in federal funding to address nursing shortages throughout the state.

The bipartisan task force was right to reject Masterson’s proposal, but all of us should take note. A top Kansas GOP leader is pushing a strategy that could put his own constituents in danger. The ploy might make sense politically, but at what cost?

“I’m just arguing for what I believe is sound logic and extend our stated goal and accountability for the people’s money,” Masterson said during the meeting, connecting stewardship of taxpayer funds with taxpayers’ right to be exposed to infectious disease in health care settings. “If you want to cast a vote just on that issue, I’m glad to cast my vote in favor of not allowing for vaccine mandates and accommodating these people.”

Senate President Ty Masterson speaks to reporters in May. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“These people” are health care workers who refuse to take vaccines that prevent severe illness from COVID-19. Masterson said the issue was one of bodily autonomy. But hospital patients have bodies, too.

Let’s work through this together. Hospitals are having trouble holding on to qualified staff because of a nationwide pandemic that has stretched our health care system beyond the breaking point. Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration wanted to use federal stimulus funds to give Kansas nurses a raise, and presented the proposal to the SPARK panel last week.

So far, so good. Pay nurses more to keep more nurses on the job.

But in case you missed it the first time, nurses are in short supply because of the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic. And in case you missed the past 18 months, COVID-19 is an infectious respiratory disease for which we now have three highly effective vaccines. That’s why health care workers were the first among us to be vaccinated. They come in contact with sick people, which makes them more likely to be infected. If they are infected but asymptomatic, they might pass that same virus to patients.

Vaccines are critical for anyone who works in health care, full stop. And while many if not most in the field have received their shots, it only makes sense that hospitals would mandate vaccines for the few who haven’t. A contagious respiratory virus can spread like wildfire in health care settings. Who would give extra money to hospitals where doctors and nurses could decide against washing their hands?

Masterson can read the room. With nearly every COVID-19 safety measure politicized by his party, he sees easy points to be gained by targeting inoculation requirements. But not everything is about politics. Throughout this state, real Kansans are packed into hospital intensive care units, kept alive by ventilators. They deserve our concern.

At one point, Masterson turned to higher principles.

“You have a whole constitutional argument about coercing somebody to do something against their belief or maintain their employment,” he said. “Right. So obviously, there needs to be some accommodation for sincerely held religious belief. There has to be some accommodation for personal autonomy.”

Masterson had been speaking about the Kansas Constitution, but U.S. Supreme Court precedent suggests otherwise.

Honestly, you have to admire the Senate president’s chutzpah. Masterson time and again emphasized that hospitals were potentially discriminating against “healthy” people. The problem is, viruses don’t care about how healthy you are — only if you have enough antibodies.

Thankfully, most of the SPARK committee resisted Masterson’s ideas Wednesday afternoon. Let’s hope their immunity stays strong.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.