INDIANAPOLIS – Legislators are considering changes to a controversial COVID-19 bill that affects the state's emergency status and employer vaccine mandates – including possibly separating the two issues completely. 

The first part of House Bill 1001 would add language to state law allowing Indiana to keep receiving additional COVID-related benefits from the federal government while letting the longtime public health emergency lapse.

But a second part limiting vaccine mandates has the business community – and citizens wanting even stronger language – up in arms.

John Klaassen of Noble County criticized lawmakers, saying “we are sorely disappointed with your outcomes. Your bills have been weak. Republicans, you behave as if there is a two-party system within your own ranks.”

He was one of dozens who testified for seven hours Thursday before the House Pension Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee. It is the second hearing for the language, which won't be acted on until January, when lawmakers return for the 2022 session.

The overwhelming majority of people opposed the bill for varying reasons.

Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, an Indianapolis doctor who has cared for COVID-19 patients the last two years, brought a letter signed by 450 doctors against the bill, and his frustration was clear. 

“I don't want to wear this mask anymore. I don't want to care for dying COVID patients anymore,” he said. “The message this bill sends is that vaccines aren't important. Vaccines are important. They are the only way to end this.”

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, wrote the bill because people who are refusing employer vaccine mandates are losing their jobs.

“We must protect Hoosier workers,” he said. “I don't want to spend today saying 'what if this' and 'what if that.' In the legislative process we can what-if things to death. I want to hear today how to make this a better bill, a workable bill.”

Employers are allowed under current law to require vaccines, and some have done so in recent months – mostly in the health care industry. Although the bill doesn't outright ban employer mandates, it severely restricts them.

The proposal would require companies that impose a mandate to provide a weekly testing option for employees, at the cost of the employer. It also would require a business to accept all exemption requests for medical and religious beliefs. That upends decades of state and federal precedent that allows employers to decide whether exemption requests are legitimate.

Lehman said there will be a few changes made to the bill. For instance, it will say someone fired as a result of a vaccine mandate is eligible for unemployment. This would stand as a penalty on businesses because the unemployment taxes a business pays increase if it uses the system. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb wants the vaccine mandate and state emergency status issues separated.

He said there is a universal agreement on the items related to ending the emergency, “so why not deal with what we agree on and get that out of the way and then have our discussion?”

That appears to be where Senate Republicans are headed.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said there is wisdom to that idea because the vaccine mandate language is much more complicated.

“There's a lot of talk about doing that separately right now,” he said.