Pa. GOP lawmakers threaten state funding for Penn veterinary program over vaccine policy

By: - June 8, 2021 1:30 pm

The University of Pennsylvania’s campus in Philadelphia (UPenn Flickr).

A group of House Republicans are threatening to withhold almost $32 million in state funding for Philadelphia’s largest private employer over its employee vaccine policy.

In a June 3 letter, 25 House Republicans told the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Health System that they would oppose any state budget plan that provides the system with public dollars because the system was requiring all staff to be vaccinated by Sept. 1.

The system, which runs seven hospitals, announced the policy May 20. At that point, 11,000 out of 44,000 employees were not yet vaccinated, PennMedicine said in a statement at the time.

Staff who are not able to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons would be required to apply for an exemption, similar to the system’s flu vaccine policy that the system has had in place for more than a decade.

In the letter, the Republican lawmakers, led by state Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, called the policy “deeply discriminatory.”

“The medical privacy of all Pennsylvanians must be protected,” the letter concludes. “In taking this action, we affirm our sacred obligation to protect the privacy, dignity and freedom of our constituents.”

Lewis told the Capital-Star that PennMedicine employees reached out to him and asked him to spotlight the issue.

According to a PennMedicine email sent to Lewis and shared with the Capital-Star, exemption requests to the vaccine policy “will be carefully evaluated, and are not guaranteed.”

If a system employee received a vaccine exemption, it also could be “reevaluated as circumstances change,” according to the email.

Lewis told the Capital-Star he wanted this exemption guaranteed.

“The goal for me has nothing to do with the vaccine itself,” Lewis told the Capital-Star. “I’ve always been strongly pro-vaccine. It’s about protecting freedom, that’s it.”

Patrick Norton, PennMedicine’s vice president for public affairs, said in a statement that the system had been in touch with Lewis and will discuss his concerns further.

A meeting between the two is scheduled for Wednesday, Lewis said.

The vast majority of that state funding — $31.6 million — goes to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, according to the most recent state budget. The state put another $295,000 into PennMedicine’s infectious disease department.

That is just a drop in the bucket of the $30 billion-plus annual state budget, which must be approved by June 30. Negotiations on the proposal are underway between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, told the Capital-Star he was aware of the issue, but hadn’t talked to his colleagues or PennMedicine yet, and had not yet taken a position.

The University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school is ranked among the top in the nation, and the sudden effort to strip funding from it came as a surprise to Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania Grange.

”It’s research that helps keep you and I stay alive, and fed, and agricultural moving forward,” Campbell said. “If you have a disagreement, that’s fine, but let’s sit down and talk about it. Let’s not penalize everybody by taking away funding.”

Livestock makes up a big portion of Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry, pointed out Vince Phillips, a retired Harrisburg lobbyist who has worked on agricultural issues.

Those animals are kept healthy and productive by vets trained at Penn. Any cuts to their veterinary program “would be one of the most short-sighted things I have seen the General Assembly do,” Phillips said in an email.

“I don’t know UPenn’s vaccine policy and frankly don’t care,” he added. “The point is that vaccine is an extraneous issue, and does not and should involve the School of Veterinary Medicine.”

As for Philadelphia, Democratic state Rep. Jason Dawkins, chair of the city’s House delegation, compared the push to Republicans’ ongoing crusade to preempt the commonwealth’s largest city whenever something happens that the GOP opposes.

“It’s always mind-blowing to me that they have so much interest in a place that they don’t like,” Dawkins said. “You’re okay with taking our tax dollars, but you’re not okay when we use our tax dollars the way we want to use our tax dollars.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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