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Little Rock hospital balks at providing vaccinations

The Associated Press

One of the major hospitals in the state's largest city has balked at the idea of providing smallpox vaccinations to health-care workers, because of possible risk to patients.

Officials of the St. Vincent Health System, which operates St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, said it will not participate when the state Health Department begins providing smallpox vaccinations to designated health-care workers Feb. 19.

In addition to St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, the flagship operation, the system operates St. Vincent Doctors Hospital at Little Rock, as well as hospitals at Sherwood and Morrilton. The possibility of accidentally infecting patients is too great, St. Vincent officials said.

"We believe it -- the voluntary vaccination program -- is a greater risk than benefit," said Margaret Preston, a St. Vincent spokesman. "If those circumstances change, then, obviously, we would change our position."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the vaccine can, in rare cases, cause serious side-effects or even death. The agency recommends that anyone in close contact with someone with a weakened immune system should not get the vaccine.

"If hospital employees who have been vaccinated will use proper infection-control guidelines, there should not be a problem," said Beth Ingram, vice president of the Arkansas Hospital Association.

So far, the St. Vincent hospitals are the only Arkansas facilities to opt out of the program.

Except for St. Vincent, all of Arkansas' acute-care hospitals have requested information packets to help their personnel decide whether to participate in the smallpox vaccination program. Arkansas hospitals have until Feb. 14 to submit to the Health Department the number of doses they will need to vaccinate their first responders.

Ingram said Arkansas hospitals remain wary. The federal Homeland Security Act includes a section addressing some liability concerns, but there are some gray areas.

Ingram said hospitals are still unsure whether sick leave for employees who suffer significant adverse reactions to the vaccine would be covered under workers' compensation.

"The sticking point is that it is a voluntary program, and it's not mandated" for their jobs, she said.

Some hospitals say their employee health insurers have warned that illnesses stemming from vaccination may not be covered, Ingram said.

The Health Department, the Workers Compensation Commission and the state Insurance Department are drafting a bill that will address some of the liability concerns, said Mike Pickens, the state insurance commissioner.