Montana lawmakers approve governor’s changes to vaccine bill

April 29, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana lawmakers have approved amendments proposed by Gov. Greg Gianforte to a bill aimed at preventing discrimination based on a person’s vaccine status that appear to try to address concerns about the bill raised by health care organizations.

The bill would prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment.

The Montana Hospital Association and other health care organizations argued that the bill could leave them unable to screen potential employees and would prohibit them from requiring vaccines of employees who have direct contact with patients and the public. They said the bill could lead to all employees having to wear masks and for facilities to limit visitors.

Gianforte, a Republican, proposed an amendment on Wednesday clarifying that employees could voluntarily provide their vaccine records and that employers will not be seen as discriminating when they impose reasonable accommodations, such as requiring masks, for employees who are not vaccinated or choose not to divulge their vaccine status.

Gianforte’s amendment also said that nursing homes, long-term care facilities and assisted living facilities are exempt from the bill if compliance would violate regulations or guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The House approved the amendments on Wednesday, and the Senate did the same on Thursday.

The bill alleviates some, but not all of the medical groups’ concerns, said Katy Peterson, spokesperson for the Montana Hospital Association. While the amendment would exempt nursing homes from the bill’s provisions, it does not include the same exemption for hospitals to meet federal guidelines.

“Hospitals treat very sick and vulnerable populations — the same ones served by nursing homes,” along with babies in neonatal intensive care units, chemotherapy patients and others, she said.

“Concerns remain with the ability of hospitals to protect patient and worker safety,” Peterson said, which could impact medical liability costs and coverage and affect workers’ compensation costs because of on-the-job risks.

Supporters of the bill included some employees of Benefis Health System in Great Falls, which had said it would require its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine to keep their jobs.

Under the bill, employers would not be allowed to require employees to receive vaccinations that are being distributed under emergency use authorization, under which the Food and Drug Administration has authorized COVID-19 shots to be administered.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed a new rule Tuesday to require hospitals to report vaccination rates among health care staff, Peterson noted.

Republican Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls said Wednesday that he was surprised that the governor’s amendment did not exempt hospitals from the bill if it would cause them to violate federal standards. He also said the definition of “reasonable accommodations” could lead to court challenges.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson of Manhattan said the bill, which she sponsored, was meant to make it clear that employees cannot be fired for a personal choice.

“We have been able to keep people safe in hospitals who are not vaccinated,” she said. “This clarifies those practices are still allowable and not considered discrimination.”