By Tom Hals
(Reuters) -A federal judge on Monday blocked in 10 states a Biden administration vaccine requirement, finding the agency that issued the rule mandating healthcare workers get vaccinated against the coronavirus likely exceeded its authority.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp in St. Louis prevents the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from enforcing its vaccine mandate for healthcare workers until the court can hear legal challenges brought by the 10 states.
CMS in a statement said it was reviewing the ruling, adding that unvaccinated healthcare staff pose a threat to patient safety.
The ruling is the second legal setback for President Joe Biden, who has focused on vaccines to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, a point he emphasized on Monday amid concerns about the spread of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.
A federal appeals court in New Orleans earlier this month blocked a sweeping workplace mandate that requires businesses with at least 100 employees to get their staff vaccinated or tested weekly.
Republican state attorneys general sued the administration in early November over the CMS rule, seeking to block the requirement because they alleged it would worsen healthcare staffing shortages.
Schelp, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, said CMS had understated the "overwhelming" cost of its mandate and by declining to submit the rule to public comment the agency had fed the vaccine hesitancy the rule is meant to counter.
Schelp also said the CMS rule altered the balance of power between the federal and state governments.
"Congress did not clearly authorize CMS to enact this politically and economically vast, federalism-altering, and boundary-pushing mandate, which Supreme Court precedent requires," he wrote.
Schelp's ruling applied in the 10 states that brought the case: Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire.
On Nov. 4, CMS issued the interim final rule it said covers over 10 million people and applies to around 76,000 healthcare providers including hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers.
The rule requires health facilities to mandate all employees, volunteers and contractors have a first vaccine dose by Dec. 6 and to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. Providers that fail to comply could lose access to Medicare and Medicaid funds.
Medicare serves people 65 and older and the disabled. Medicaid serves the poor.
In addition to the CMS rule and the workplace vaccine requirement, the Biden administration imposed coronavirus vaccine rules on government contractors, military personnel and federal employees, which are all being challenged in court.
Courts have upheld mandates by private employers and state governments, which have helped to increase the rate of COVID-19 vaccination in the United States.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration said a total of 92% of U.S. federal workers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington; Editing by Bill Berkrot)