‘This fight is far from over:’ Opponents of Ochsner Health vaccine mandate vow to bring battle to legislature

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SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld Ochsner Health’s vaccine mandate on Friday, but an attorney for the employees who filed suit says they are taking the battle next to the legislature.

“Some fights are worth it,” Jimmy Faircloth, who filed separate suits for Ochsner employees in Lafayette and Shreveport over the mandates, wrote in a statement released to media Friday afternoon.

The Shreveport lawsuit, filed Oct. 6 in Caddo District Court, disputed Ochsner’s right to force employees to get the coronavirus vaccine, saying that Louisiana law, Article 1, Section 5, gives citizens “an affirmative, fundamental right to decide whether to obtain or reject medical treatment guaranteed by the state constitution, codified in statute and long recognized by the courts.”

Louisiana’s highest court said Ochsner Health employees don’t have a legal reason to sue because the state gives employers the right to fire anyone as long as the reason doesn’t violate other laws or the state or federal constitution.

The ruling was handed down the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the Biden administration’s order for companies with at least 100 employees to require vaccination or testing.

Ochsner Health president and CEO Warner Thomas said the health system is pleased with the unanimous decision.

“Ochsner Health remains committed to protecting the health and safety of our patients, team members and everyone across the communities we serve, and this decision supports our right to enact policies that protect patients and staff at our facilities across Louisiana,” he said.

“As we are currently experiencing a new surge due to the Omicron variant, we continue to keep the health and safety of our patients and team members a top priority.”

Faircloth said the Louisiana Supreme Court ruling “weakened Louisiana’s right to personal medical autonomy by denying private employees the right to refuse medical treatment demanded by their employers.”

“Our clients have always understood that the issue was bound for the legislature,” Faircloth said. “By dismissing the case without performing the traditional balancing test for privacy claims, the court has granted authority for private employers to place medical treatment restrictions on employees for any reason, without explanation or rationale. This is uncharted territory for personal autonomy. There will be no shortage of co-authors for an Individual Medical Rights Act in the upcoming session. This fight is far from over.”

The lawsuits filed in October also argued that the mandate for vaccination against the coronavirus violated employees’ right to privacy under Louisiana’s constitution, according to the Associated Press.

“In addition to the use of economic duress, Ochsner expressly employs the use of stigma and ridicule to drive the mandate, requiring employees to place their vaccination status on public display,” the lawsuit filed in Caddo Parish said.

Louisiana’s justices said state and federal courts have consistently held that Louisiana’s constitutional right to privacy protects people from governments.

“This court declines the invitation to extend the scope … to restrict private actors,” said the opinion written by Chief Justice John Weimer.

Faircloth said that gives private employers authority “to place medical treatment restrictions on employees for any reason, without explanation or rationale. This is uncharted territory for personal autonomy.”

Shreveport Ochsner employees opposed to the vaccine requirement won a decision at the state’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal, which blocked the system’s requirement. But a state judge in the Lafayette area refused to do so.

Ochsner said in early December that it had fired 280 employees who refused to get a coronavirus vaccine or seek an exemption. It said 180 were contract workers called in when needed. Ochsner said nearly 99% of its 30,000 employees had complied with the vaccination policy.

Louisiana’s COVID-19 numbers continued to rise Friday, breaking the single-day pandemic record for the second straight day with 14,802 new COVID-19 cases. Some 1,521 patients were hospitalized in the state, 68 of them on ventilators, and authorities said there have been 16 deaths — up from 12 — in the 24 hours ending at noon Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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