NH lawmakers propose ban on vaccine mandates, vaccine 'passports'
Opponents of the proposal said it would prevent healthcare agencies from keeping track of which staff members are vaccinated
The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
CONCORD, N.H. — Conservative lawmakers are pushing to prevent state agencies or state contractors from requiring their employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Rep. Timothy Baxter, R- Seabrook, offered the proposal against vaccine mandates or vaccine "passports" as an amendment to a bill (SB 155) the Sununu administration has submitted to make changes to statutes that officials want to live on past the pandemic.
The amendment took center stage before a House committee on Tuesday.
"Vaccine passports could discriminate against flying, travel, going to a job or simply going to the supermarket," Baxter told the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee.
"We can be a society that values freedom and doesn't discriminates against somebody."
This amendment, if in place, would prevent the University of New Hampshire administration from requiring proof of vaccination — also referred to as a vaccine "passport" — to attend graduation exercises later this spring, as it has proposed.
Rep. Leah Cushman, R- Weare, a nurse, said the state should not endorse requiring people to take any medical treatment that has inherent risks.
Cushman said any reason someone gives for refusing the vaccine should be considered valid.
"No one should be marginalized from society for not taking something they do not wish to take," Cushman said. "You are coercing people into getting a vaccine. It's like a back-door mandate."
This ban would exempt health care facilities that care for COVID-19 patients when the lack of a vaccine poses a "direct threat" that can't be eliminated by some accommodation.
The New Hampshire Hospital Association opposes the amendment. Paula Minnehan, vice president of governmental affairs, said it would create an "individual" case-by-case exemption that would be confusing and unworkable.
Gina Balkus, CEO of the New Hampshire Home Care, Hospice and Palliative Care Association, said the amendment would not permit any health care agency to keep track of which staff members are vaccinated and which are not.
The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire also opposed it.
"We object to having the state try to tell the private sector what it should or shouldn't do when it comes to keeping its employees and customers safe," said David Juvet, BIA senior vice president.
In its proposed two-year state budget, The Republican-led House has inserted limits on the future powers Gov. Chris Sununu or his successors would have in dealing with emergencies.
Sununu has said the House went "off the rails" with its proposal, and he would veto the budget in the unlikely event it gets to his desk with all these changes.
Dr. Beth Daly, director of the state Bureau of Infections Disease Control, said vaccines have reduced COVID-related deaths by 92%.
"If you look at who is dying in New Hampshire right now, it's people who are not vaccinated," Daly said.
The House has approved a separate bill (HB 220) to spell out expanded medical freedom in refusing vaccines.
New Hampshire state law already allows a religious exemption against children having to be vaccinated.
Baxter and other supporters also want to have this debate a bill Gov. Chris Sununu submitted to legislative leaders to retain some state public health changes once the state of emergency is over.
Sununu said he is opposed to vaccine passports and has repeatedly said anyone should be free to decline the COVID-19 vaccine.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R- Wolfeboro, agreed to sponsor the original bill (SB 155), which had 30 different sections.
Bradley noted the Senate found many of them "too controversial" or "complicated" and stripped the bill down to nine policy sections.
Some of the remaining proposed changes faced criticism during a 90-minute hearing on the Senate-passed bill Tuesday.
Officials with the state Department of Environmental Services and the New Hampshire Municipal Association raised concerns about expanding outdoor restaurant dining through the end of 2023.
At the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, outdoor dining became very popular as patrons felt safer eating outside than indoors.
But Robert Tardif, with the state's Department of Environmental services, said the bill could restaurant owners to expand seating so much that it could cause a failure in sewer systems.
(c)2021 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)