Senate rejects bid to force health workers to treat patients regardless of COVID-19 vax status

Failed amendment aimed at all licensees of Board of Healing Arts, Board of Nursing

By: - January 21, 2022 9:45 am
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Republican and physician, offered an amendment that would have required thousands of health professionals licensed by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and the Kansas Board of Nursing to care for patients regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Republican and physician, offered an amendment that would have required thousands of health professionals licensed by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and the Kansas Board of Nursing to care for patients regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate defeated an amendment to a COVID-19 bill that would have forced thousands of health care professionals —  physical therapists and athletic trainers, physicians and nurses, acupuncturists and contact lens distributors — to treat patients regardless of their vaccination status or infection experience.

The far-reaching amendment proposed by the Senate’s lone physician covered all licensees of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and the Kansas Board of Nursing. The amendment introduced by Reno County Sen. Mark Steffen, who has rebelled against many public health restrictions and recommendations during the pandemic, inspired lengthy debate before voted down 17-19 with nine Republicans and 10 Democrats opposed.

“You don’t turn your back on them — period,” said Steffen, an anesthesiologist who suggested the problem had occurred in the Wichita area and elsewhere. “This isn’t about anything other than what this bill is trying to do. We’re trying to take care of people. Sometimes politics, beliefs get in the way of doing the right thing at the right time.”

He said the amendment’s bottom line was hospital and clinic staff and other medical providers would no longer be able to refuse a patient based on COVID-19 vaccination status or information in a so-called “immunity passport.” His amendment contemplated sanctioning of violators.

Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said the Steffen amendment would have imposed requirements on 16 types of medical professionals regulated by the state Board of Healing Arts and individuals under oversight of the state Board of Nursing.

“We are taking away personal liberties of all these business owners and everyone who receives their licenses from the Board of Healing Arts,” Sykes said.

Steffen sought to attach the government mandate to House Bill 2477, which was initiated at behest of Gov. Laura Kelly to deal with hospital and adult care home staffing shortages. It would allow issuance of temporary licenses, certifications and registrations to people who held those credentials in the past five years while working at a nursing home. The bill also enabled health professionals, including nurses and pharmacists, to provide additional services in the pandemic and allow out-of-state health workers to practice in Kansas without licensure in this state.

The bill was approved Thursday by overwhelming margins in the House and Senate — Steffen dissented — and sent to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, quizzed Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, about his amendment mandating thousands of licensed Kansas health professionals, from surgeons to acupuncturists, treat patients regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status or history of COVID-19 infection. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Steffen was criticized by Senate colleagues for wading into a substantive health policy issue on the Senate floor with an idea unvetted by any legislative committee.

“I disagree with the concept that we’re doing this on the fly,” he said.

Steffen said a friend attempted to get prescriptions renewed through a family physician in southeast Kansas, but was escorted from the building because she hadn’t received a COVID-19 shot. Steffen said he secured medicines for the friend until the person made contact with another doctor.

Senators peppered Steffen with questions about details of his amendment — some of which he declined to answer or redirected to a colleague.

Sen. John Doll, a Republican from Garden City, said he was curious how the amendment dealt with dentists and optometrists. Steffen said he wasn’t certain, but Baxter Springs Sen. Richard Hilderbrand said dentists and optometrists were regulated by boards not covered by the amendment.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, asked Steffen about a prohibition in the amendment against clinic and hospital staff refusing patients based on contents of an “immunity passport.” She asked Steffen to explain what constituted an immunity passport.

“I think we’ve entered the realm of absurdity,” said Steffen, who has opposed government COVID-19 mandates. “This amendment brings security to people who know they can go to hospitals, they can go to clinics, and they won’t be turned away based on their vaccine status.”

Sen. Kelli Warren, a Leawood Republican, said an immunity passport in context of Steffen’s amendment referred to a document indicating a person’s vaccination status or asserting a person possessed immunity to the virus after infection and recovery. The Mayo Clinic has reported, however, people who acquired antibodies for COVID-19 could be infected again.

Pettey asked Steffen whether immunity passports were included when the 2021 Legislature banned use of vaccination passports to limit access to state government buildings and services. Steffen deferred to Warren, who said she didn’t believe the law took into account Steffen’s proposed mandate on health care providers.

“I would hope we would be clear about what the intent is,” said Pettey, who argued the Senate shouldn’t jeopardize licenses of health professionals during a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. “If we’re talking about safety, we should be talking about safety of all of us.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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