MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin employers, including hospitals, nursing homes and other health care agencies, could no longer require workers to get flu shots under a bill pending in the Legislature.
Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said he began drafting the legislation after several hospital workers and health care contractors in his district complained they were fired after refusing to be vaccinated.
Other states have laws or legislation pending requiring health care workers to be immunized or requiring employers to offer them the vaccine. The National Conference of State Legislatures said the Wisconsin bill was the only one it was aware of that would bar employers of any type from requiring vaccinations.
The bill would require employers to provide information about the risks and benefits of vaccination and allow employees reasonable time to consider it. They could not demote, suspend, discharge or discriminate against employees who refuse.
"No one should have to choose between losing employment and having a large, ineffective vaccine injected into their body," Thiesfeldt said in a memo attached to the proposal.
The current state law allows workers to refuse vaccinations for religious reasons, but Thiesfeldt said that wasn't enough.
"I question why a religious exemption supersedes a personal objection for this specific issue," he said.
He would not provide details on the cases in which he said workers were fired for refusing vaccination.
Agnesian HealthCare, which has a hospital in Fond du Lac, did not return a message from The Associated Press.
UW Health — the academic medical center and health system for the University of Wisconsin — requires workers to get vaccinated once a year or provide a medical or religious reason for a waiver. UW Health spokeswoman Lisa Brunette said she was not aware of anyone being fired for refusing a flu shot.
More than 95 percent of the some 30,000 employees at Aurora Health Care are currently vaccinated, said Adam Beeson, spokesman for the Milwaukee-based nonprofit system. Aurora also honors religious exemptions, and Beeson said no Aurora employee has been fired for refusing a flu shot.
Tens of thousands of Americans die from flu and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized each year, according to the CDC. It recommends everyone older than six months of age get vaccinated once per year.
Seven states proposed legislation requiring health care workers to be immunized after the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The bills passed in six states.
Five states are considering legislation now that would either require either require workers to get vaccinated for the flu or order employers to make vaccine available, according to NCSL.
Georgia requires employers to offer annual flu vaccinations to nursing home workers, and Nebraska requires acute care hospitals to offer DTP — diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis-whooping cough — vaccinations to employees.
Gina Dennik-Champion, executive director of the Wisconsin Nurses Association and a registered nurse, said most doctors and nurses volunteer to get vaccinated so she didn't think employers needed to require it.
Thiesfeldt said one objection he has to mandatory vaccination is that he doesn't think the flu vaccine is effective.
Seasonal flu vaccines generally have effectiveness rates of between 50 and 70 percent, which is lower than that of other common vaccines. That is because the virus, and therefore the vaccine, changes from year to year.
The CDC estimates the vaccine for the 2012-2013 flu season is 56 percent effective, meaning those who got shots had a 56 percent less chance of being diagnosed with flu.
Alexandra Stewart, an immunization policy expert at the George Washington University, said vaccination is worthwhile even if some people still get sick.
"No particular measure is 100 percent effective," Stewart said in an email. "But that does not mean policy makers should reject best practices."
Stewart said health care workers have a unique obligation to take steps to prevent themselves from catching disease and spreading it to patients. She said Thiesfeldt's bill "appears to be grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of individuals' civil rights, important patient protection measures, and vaccine science."
Arthur Caplan, chief of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, called the measure problematic because it would restrict health care workers' ability to protect infants, seniors and patients vulnerable to immune system diseases.
"It's morally out of whack," he said.
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