The Massachusetts Nurses Association sued Brigham and Women’s Hospital this week, seeking to block a policy not yet in effect that would require nurses to get flu shots if they want to keep working there.
The action in Suffolk Superior Court comes as state public health officials are leaning on hospitals to improve the influenza vaccination rate among health care workers, which varied in hospitals from 62 percent to 99 percent during the most recent flu season.
Health care workers can transmit the flu to patients, whose illnesses make them especially vulnerable to complications.
Brigham and Women’s, with a worker vaccination rate of 77 percent, has had little success increasing the number of employees who will accept the vaccine, despite offering free shots around the clock, said hospital spokeswoman Erin McDonough.
The Brigham instituted the mandate in hope of matching the success of other teaching hospitals in Boston, most of which vaccinate more than 90 percent of employees, she said.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association, the union representing 3,200 nurses at the Brigham, said in its lawsuit that the hospital’s mandate, which could lead to the firing of employees who refuse vaccination, violates a state regulation that explicitly bars hospitals from requiring employees to the receive vaccine if they don’t want it, regardless of the reason.
McDonough said Brigham officials “believe that we have interpreted the statute correctly, but will await clarification before implementing a mandatory policy.”
David Schildmeier, the spokesman for the nurses’ union, called the regulation “crystal clear.”
“Every employee has a right to decline,” he said. “All they have to do is sign a form. They don’t have to give a reason.”
The regulation states: “A hospital shall not require an individual to receive an influenza vaccine” if the employee has medical or religious reasons for refusing or if “the individual declines the vaccine.”
Even so, a number of Massachusetts hospitals require flu vaccinations as a condition of employment, and those hospitals have higher vaccination rates, said Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, which has long advocated mandatory flu vaccination for health care workers.
Nicholas accused the nurses’ union of being an obstacle to immunization.
“Hospitals that have the MNA have a much harder time getting their vaccination rates up,” she said. In filing suit, she said, the union “is putting a pet peeve of theirs above the safety and well-being of the patients they serve, their families, visitors to the hospital, and their colleagues.”
Schildmeier denied any “pet peeve.”
“We want vaccinations up,” he said. “We don’t want to do so by violating the rights of the nurses.”
Schildmeier said that while nurses accept requirements to be vaccinated against polio, measles, and other infectious diseases, some regard the flu vaccine differently. Shots must be taken every year, reformulated each time to protect against the flu strains expected to circulate. Schildmeier asserted that the shot is ineffective 5o to 60 percent of the time and that nurses can protect patients through infection control measures.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital require employees who work in patient care areas to obtain flu shots. In the 2013-14 flu season, the two hospitals had vaccination rates of 94 percent and 90 percent respectively. Nurses at those hospitals are not represented by the MNA.
But the union does represent nurses at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which was among three hospitals with a 99 percent vaccination rate last season.
Dana-Farber policy requires employees to get annual flu shots, but the hospital exempts MNA-represented nurses from this policy.
“However,” spokeswoman Ellen Berlin wrote in an e-mail, “our nursing staff supports the flu vaccine program and understands its importance in protecting our patient population.”