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Unvaccinated Oregon Nurses Could Face Sanctions From Licensing Board

Oregon State Board of Nursing to consider a temporary rule that would allow regulatory action against nurses without a COVID-19 vaccination.
A critical care nurse at OHSU gets a COVID-19 vaccine. | JOSH ANDERSEN/OHSU
October 6, 2021

Oregon nurses who fail to get a COVID-19 vaccination or qualifying exemption could face regulatory action from the state nursing board. 

The Oregon State  Board of Nursing will consider a temporary rule at its Wednesday, Oct. 13, meeting that, if approved, would allow the regulatory body to sanction nurses who fail to comply with the vaccine mandate. The board’s meeting comes five days before Oct. 18, the state’s deadline for health care workers to be fully vaccinated or have employer-approved exemptions for medical or religious reasons. 

There’s no hard and fast rule for how the board would discipline unvaccinated nurses. But existing options for disciplinary action include a reprimand, suspending the license for a certain period of time or revoking it. In some cases, disciplined nurses voluntarily surrender their licenses. The board also has the authority to impose civil penalties of $500 to $5,000.

Gov. Kate Brown ordered the vaccine mandate, which also applies to public school teachers.

The looming mandate has stoked fears of an exodus of health care workers from the industry, including nurses and certified nursing assistants who work in hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities.

“The governor’s immunization mandate has resulted in the Oregon Health Authority publishing rules regarding healthcare workers who are not in compliance with the mandate after October 18,” wrote the nursing board’s Executive Director Ruby Jason in a memo to board members. “The Department of Justice has determined that a healthcare worker licensed by an Oregon Healthcare Regulatory Board must be in compliance or could be found in violation of Oregon law.”

The state’s legal interpretation of the vaccine mandate also means that regulatory boards that license nurses and other health care professionals need rules that address the vaccine mandate. The Oregon Medical Board, which regulates physicians and physician assistants, will consider a similar rule at its meeting Thursday, Oct. 7. Like the nursing board proposal, its draft also includes other COVID-19-related requirements, such as wearing a face mask.

The state’s justice department put out model rules for temporary adoption. Temporary rules can be in place for up to 180 days. At that point, agencies can put permanent rules in place.

“The expectation is that all healthcare regulatory boards adopt these rules to address concerns that healthcare workers are caring for clients and interacting with the public without vaccination for COVID-19 after the governor’s deadline,” Jason wrote. 

However, the proposed rule doesn’t mean unvaccinated nurses will automatically lose their licenses. The Department of Justice model gives the board discretion to determine what the discipline should be if they find the nurse didn’t comply. That would only come after the board’s  existing due process, which gives the nurse a hearing before finalizing any discipline.

“Rumors of the OSBN automatically revoking a person’s license on the Governor’s deadline have no basis in fact,” the board said in a statement about the pending rule. 

The proposed rule would add “failure to comply” with Oregon Health Authority COVID-19 rules to the board’s existing list of behaviors and actions that are “conduct derogatory to the standards of nursing.”

Nurses who don’t get vaccinated would not face an automatic investigation, either. Someone would need to report them to the board. Barbara Holtry, communications manager for the nursing board, said the regulatory agency would have to receive a complaint in order to start an investigation.

“The board cannot act without a complaint,” Holtry said in an interview. “If we don’t receive a complaint, we will not act.”

Holtry said the purpose of all regulatory agencies is public safety.

The board regulates nearly 72,000 registered nurses, nearly 6,000 licensed practical nurses and almost 20,000 certified nursing assistants.

The Oregon Nurses Association, a union that represents more than 15,000 nurses and allied health professionals, declined to take a firm position on the proposal. At this point, the group's understanding is that proposal's purpose is to bring regulations in line with the mandate, spokesman Scott Palmer said. 

At this point, it "seems pretty reasonable," Palmer said, adding that the group will continue to monitor the issue.

Currently, 83% of registered nurses, 69% of licensed practical nurses and 68% of certified nursing assistants are vaccinated, according to Oregon Health Authority rates. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.