Riverside Medical Center

Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee

KANKAKEE — Six Riverside Healthcare nurses have filed a lawsuit against the healthcare provider saying that its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees violates their “sincerely held moral convictions.”

The law firm representing the six described Riverside’s action as a “ruthless overreach.”

In addition to Riverside, its president and CEO, Phil Kambic, is named as a defendant.

The suit, filed in Kankakee County’s 21st Circuit Court by Chicago’s Liberty Justice Center, a national nonprofit law firm, states Riverside’s “blanket rejection of any and all exemption requests is a violation of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order,” according to a press release from Liberty.

According to Kyle Benoit in a previous interview, Riverside’s chief operating officer, the hospital has not denied all exemption requests. Benoit said that 75 full-time equivalent employees have been granted exemptions.

Riverside Healthcare issued a statement this morning regarding the nurses’ lawsuit.

“As a healthcare provider, we believe protecting the health and safety of our patients and employees is our top responsibility and must be our No. 1 priority,” the hospital said.

“While we cannot comment on specifics related to pending litigation, we remain fully confident requiring our employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will allow us to provide the safest environment possible for everyone we serve.

“It is also important to know that the vast majority of our employees have either received the vaccine or an approved medical or religious/strongly held belief exemption.”

Pritzker’s executive order referenced in the lawsuit was issued Aug. 26 and mandated that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly. The order, the law firm states, also allowed an option for weekly testing if vaccination would “violate or forgo a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

On Aug. 27, Riverside issued a memo to all employees that it was implementing a vaccine mandate in order to be in compliance with the state’s mandate. The memo explained employees could seek an exemption.

In the single-count lawsuit, the six employees are seeking a permanent injunction preventing Riverside from enforcing the employee mandate in any form; state the mandate violates the health care rights act; award damages of a least $2,500 per the six plaintiffs; and for Riverside to pay legal expenses.

The firm is representing: Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner with 24 years of experience; Valerie Kietzman, a registered nurse of four years at Riverside; Judy Busato, a registered nurse of seven months at Riverside; Kathryn Hamblem, a nurse practitioner of four years at Riverside; Carmen Wymore, a registered nurse of five years at Riverside; and Amy Memenga, a 26-year nurse manager who claims to have been fired in September.

“The nurses worked throughout the pandemic, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line. They were celebrated as ‘essential workers’ and ‘heroes’ for their courage — and rightly so,” said Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at Liberty Justice Center. “And now, 20 months into the pandemic, Riverside Healthcare is showing them the door unless they violate their religious beliefs and their conscience.”

He added: “This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front-line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong. These nurses know the virus better than anyone and are making a deeply personal, individual choice that should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it’s Illinois law.”

Panozzo, who is also a commissioner on the board of commissioners for the Kankakee County Health Department, said she has dedicated her life to living out her faith by serving her patients.

“I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable. I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine. I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs.”

State seeks change

Legal action on the grounds of Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act violations is not unique to the situation at Riverside.

Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff, Emily Bittner, stated the health care rights act is being invoked in employer mandate lawsuits throughout the state. And, she says, it’s being applied inappropriately.

The act was first adopted in 1977 to protect doctors, pharmacists and other health providers who are asked to compromise their conscience in the course of practicing their profession.

“The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements,” Bittner stated in a published report.

The governor is seeking to amend the law to eliminate this growing interpretation of the act.

Lee Provost, an award-winning reporter, has been writing local news stories for The Daily Journal since 1988. He is a lifelong resident of the region. Provost can be reached at lprovost@daily-journal.com.