Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's office announced Friday he'd signed into law a controversial bill limiting the ability of hospitals and other businesses to require that staff be vaccinated.
House Bill 702 makes it illegal for most businesses or organizations to require staff, visitors, patients or customers be vaccinated in order to access a facility. It doesn't apply to schools or day cares.
A version of the bill that passed the Legislature would have kept nursing homes and other long-term care facilities from requiring that staff be vaccinated, but the governor issued an amendatory veto last month requesting changes to partially exempt them.
The changes, subsequently approved by both chambers, exempt those facilities from the new law if it would put them out of compliance with federal requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
But the Montana Hospital Association has continued to oppose the law, arguing its treatment of other health care facilities will leave them forced to choose between compliance with federal and state laws.
The new law allows health care facilities to ask employees to provide immunization status if needed to provide “reasonable accommodation measures to protect the safety and health” of people in their facility. It doesn't define "reasonable accommodations."
“Without an exemption allowing hospitals to continue following federal recommendations and regulations, hospitals will be forced to ignore longstanding federal guidelines that have protected patients [and] healthcare workers for decades,” Rich Rasmussen, president and chief executive officer of the Montana Hospital Association, stated in a press release Friday.
Hospital officials have warned that if passed, the bill could force them to indefinitely continue some policies implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including requiring staff and visitors to wear masks and restricting or prohibiting visitation.
Rasmussen previously told the Montana State News Bureau the law could also make it more difficult for the state to recruit qualified health care professionals.
“They will look at Montana and say, ‘I can’t be guaranteed I will be working in an environment where everyone has been vaccinated,’ and some of them will stand back and make a determination that they don’t want to practice (medicine) in Montana,” he said in an interview last month.
Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke responded to requests for comment by pointing to an April press conference in which Gianforte stated the bill would return state law to the way it was before the pandemic.
Previously, hospitals and other medical providers were still able to require that staff be vaccinated against “baseline vaccinations” like measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and diphtheria.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan. She also brought a bill making it easier for students to obtain a medical exemption and attend public school without required vaccinations.
Gianforte signed that measure, House Bill 334, into law late last month.