Iowa House votes to bar ‘vaccine passports,’ turns down effort to include health care facilities

Des Moines Public Schools and MercyOne held their first vaccination clinic for teachers and staff on Saturday, Feb. 6. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

The Iowa House approved legislation to outlaw so-called “vaccine passports” Wednesday after first voting down a proposal to eliminate an exclusion for health care facilities.

“Fundamentally, this a liberty issue,” Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, who floor-managed the bill, said.

The bill forbids the state or local governments from creating a document certifying a person has been vaccinated against the COVID-19 vaccine. It also would bar businesses or other public venues from excluding unvaccinated people from admission.

The bill excludes health care facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes and it also does not prevent an employer from requiring vaccination of employees who don’t assert a medical or religious objection.

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, worked to eliminate those exceptions with several amendments, all of which failed.

“The corporations and the governments that are unrolling this are using it as a tool to control their people to control their movement to control their access to civil society,” Shipley said.

He argued that health care facilities such as hospitals or nursing homes might try to prevent unvaccinated people from visiting loved ones.  “And that’s why I believe that’s an atrocious violation of human liberty, that your medical freedom could be sacrificed as a condition for wanting to visit a loved one in a health care setting,” he said.

Holt argued health facilities need the ability to follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said he did not believe health-care facilities would prevent unvaccinated people from visiting and they are legally required to provide care and protect patient privacy. But, he said, being able to ask who was vaccinated would allow facilities to set up protocols such as requiring masks or limiting a visitors’ movements in a facility to protect against the spread of infection.

“I do not see this exception as condoning a vaccine passport, but rather giving our health care facilities the flexibility they need to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” he said.

Holt acknowledged the question of whether employers can require workers to be vaccinated presented an uncomfortable dilemma for Republicans.

“Does an employer have a right to decide in their business how they’re going to handle this for their employees? That’s the conflict,” he said. “I’m very uncomfortable with big corporations saying you have to have the vaccine or you don’t work here and the implications of that for workers.”

Hold said he believes the “free market” and shortage of workers will discourage employers from excluding potential employees who choose not to be vaccinated. He said lawmakers could revisit the issue if they see problems.

House File 889, which was sponsored by the majority leaders in the House and Senate, has been on a fast track in the Legislature since it was introduced last Friday.  A House Judiciary subcommittee and the full committee met Monday to vote the bill to the floor.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a companion bill, Senate File 610, Tuesday on an 11-4 vote. The bill still needs final approval in the full Senate in the final days of the session.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said earlier Wednesday she would continue to work with lawmakers on the language of the bill, without specifically referencing the exemption for health care facilities.

Here are key provisions of House File 889:

  • It would prohibit information on any state or local government identification card showing whether a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • Businesses or governmental entities could not require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 of anyone who is invited onto the premises. The bill does not specifically address employees.
  • Businesses or governmental entities that violate this law would be ineligible for grants or contracts funded with state revenue.
  • Health care facilities that are exempt from the legislation include hospitals, licensed inpatient centers, ambulatory surgical or treatment centers, diagnostic laboratory and imaging centers, skilled nursing centers, residential treatment centers, rehabilitation and other therapeutic centers, adult day care centers, and intermediate care facilities for persons with mental illness and persons with intellectual disabilities.
  • Businesses and other entities would still be allowed to conduct a COVID-19 screening protocol that does not involve requiring proof of vaccination.