BILLINGS — Starting this week, unvaccinated employees at Billings Clinic are required to take a weekly COVID-19 test or wear an N95 mask while at work.
The action comes as COVID cases are rising in Yellowstone County, and hospital officials say they were required to enact the news policy to comply with new federal mandates centered around Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement.
In addition, this new mandate has come with some pushback, with a small protest of around a half dozen in support of unvaccinated hospital employees forming outside the clinic on Thursday.
“[It's] something we could do to show support for our mom, and wife, who works here and all the others who are working hard,” said Andy Cummings, who organized the protest.
Cummings' wife has chosen not to get the vaccine, and she’s not alone.
To protect their privacy, Billings Clinic won’t say how many employees are currently unvaccinated, but at one point last November, the number stood around 1,500.
“At the beginning, it was very nerve-wracking to submit the exemption and not know if I was able to keep my job,” said Cyndie Bieber, an employee at Billings Clinic.
Bieber received a vaccine exemption, but she’s now nervous about the hospital’s new mandates.
“I thought I was in the clear to work peacefully and not have to have the extra added stress of thinking about doing weekly testing,” Bieber said.
Officials at Billings Clinic say there’s a good reason for the mandate.
"This is a federal regulation and requirement that we need to follow to make sure that we can continue to take care of people,” said Zach Benoit, the Billings Clinic community relations coordinator. Benoit also said these guidelines are happening at many hospitals across the country, not just here in Billings.
COVID-19 cases are once again climbing in Yellowstone County, and the mandate is in line with guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, which ensures federal funding for the hospital.
“What this really means is at the end of the day, Billings Clinic's mission is to take care of sick people, heal them. Take care of those Medicare, Medicaid patients, anybody else who comes through our doors. And following these regulations is one of the ways we can ensure we continue to do that,” said Benoit.
Laura Kirschenmann did get the vaccine, but she even has some concerns with the policy.
“If we’re going to do weekly testing, it should be for all employees, not just unvaccinated employees,” Kirschenmann said.
Those choosing to take weekly tests will be provided with free at-home tests.