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Alaska COVID-19 bill fails with unheard amendments opposing vaccine mandates

An amendment ensuring hospital visitors was opposed by hospital administrators
The exterior of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska.
The exterior of the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 4:07 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska House of Representatives will not pass a COVID-19 response bill as it began to be amended in ways that hospital administrators say would harm the state’s pandemic response.

On Sunday, the bill was amended to allow patients to have a support person present in hospitals. Three members of the largely Democratic House majority joined Republicans in the House minority in adding that amendment.

Advocates say that is needed on compassionate grounds so no one is alone when they’re vulnerable or dying. Critics say that limiting visitors is an important mitigation tool and that those rules are set out in federal law.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said there were over a dozen unheard amendments that aimed to block vaccine mandates and he couldn’t support the bill if they were added. He said a new agreement between legislators was needed.

The House majority voted to take the bill off the floor on Sunday evening and send it back to committee.

There were closed-door discussions on Monday between legislators whether the original bill could pass without the divisive amendments. Those talks failed and the bill won’t be sent back to the House floor.

Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said support for blocking mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations came down to protecting individual rights.

“There is fear; there is anger; there is frustration,” she said. “People feel like it should be a right to choose or a right to decline a vaccination.”

The original legislation proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy would have expanded telehealth during the pandemic. It would also have temporarily waived some pretreatment authorization requirements and background checks for health care workers.

Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Nursing Homes Association, said hospital administrators had called for those measures to combat an ongoing delta variant surge. But then the bill began to change to include provisions which Kosin said would do more harm than good.

“Our hospitals today are responding to a crisis. We’re not going to support efforts to restrict vaccination and restrict mitigation efforts,” he added. “It’s not even worth it right now.”

The Senate passed the bill to the House on Friday with amendments opposing vaccine mandates. They would allow Alaskans to opt out of getting the shot on philosophical grounds, but President Joe Biden’s anticipated executive order would trump those exemptions if the two laws clashed.

The House Health and Social Services Committee heard the bill on Saturday. Members stripped out the amendments against vaccine mandates and sent it to the House floor where many expected there was enough support to add them again.

The governor introduced another bill in February that would see Alaska join a multistate nurse’s coalition. He added it to the third special session agenda in early September.

Advocates of that coalition say it would streamline licensing. Critics have been concerned that it would limit the state’s ability to regulate nursing in Alaska. That bill has stalled in the Senate.

The 30-day special session must end by Tuesday at midnight.

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