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Governor proposes amendments for worker vaccine bill

by AMY BETH HANSON
| April 30, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has proposed amendments to a bill that seeks to prevent discrimination based on vaccine status. The changes appear to address concerns raised by health care organizations.

The bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature, would have prohibited employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment.

The Montana Hospital Association and other 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 and the House approved it, 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 Senate was expected to act on the amendments 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," she said, along with babies in neonatal intensive care units, chemotherapy patients and others.

"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 due to 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 healthcare 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."