BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Editor's note: Newsmakers 2011 recounts and updates stories that made headlines in the Grand Traverse region during the past year. Today: Munson Healthcare expects most employees will comply with a flu vaccine mandate. To read this series in full as articles are published, visit record-eagle.com/newsmakers.
Munson Medical Center administrators remain optimistic their no-flu-vaccine, no-job policy will result in no firings to begin the new year.
But they've taken steps to plug holes for more than 150 procrastinating employees and doctors, just in case.
Munson Healthcare, the hospital's umbrella organization, decreed in August that no one may work, volunteer or study for any of its divisions unless he or she obtained a flu vaccine by Dec. 31. About 95 percent of the 4,800 people covered by the mandate have complied, said officials, who consider the number a huge success as compared to the 65 percent rate under previous voluntary plans.
Results show Munson employees care about patient safety, said Kathleen McManus, the hospital's chief of operations.
"We've all seen the devastating effects of what happens when our patients are infected with influenza, and we are going to do anything we can to make sure it doesn't happen," McManus said.
Compliance varies across divisions, with Munson Healthcare's 400 volunteers "leading the pack," said Sue Peters, vice president of human resources.
Doctors, as a group, appear to be the chief procrastinators.
"It's human nature for a couple of individuals to react 'tell me what to do, so I'm going to wait until the last minute,'" McManus said.
Employees who do not comply are not supposed to return to work in 2012, McManus said. They'll then receive a formal termination notice.
"We're very optimistic we won't have any, or very few, who will fall into that category," McManus said.
A group of about 50 employees who opposed flu shots met informally over the last several months to investigate their options and offer each other moral support, said nurse Keli MacIntosh.
But the group's membership continues to dwindle as the deadline nears and employees are either granted exemptions or succumb to job worries and pressure from the pro-vaccine majority.
Heidi Kistler, an administrative assistant and ordained minister who received a religious exemption, said the pressure is not an organized effort, just a strong difference in beliefs.
"They really believe it's the only way to keep patients safe," Kistler said of vaccine advocates. "I don't believe it's the best way. I believe in a natural approach and in supporting a strong immune system."
Less than 100 people applied for exemptions, Peters said, about half of whose requests have been processed. Most of those received exemptions.
MacIntosh, who was granted a medical exemption, said she knows many of the others are still sweating out a decision.
Some said they'll wait to get fired if denied, and others pledged legal action. But none were willing to speak publicly while their applications are pending.
"I really don't know what they are going to do," MacIntosh said. "They have families ... they need their jobs."