Judge rejects healthcare vaccine choice bill

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte receives a syringe of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Drew Garton at a Walgreen’s pharmacy in Helena, Montana, in 2021. (Photo by Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

HELENE, Mont. (AP) — A person’s decision to refuse vaccinations does not override public health and safety requirements in medical facilities, a federal judge ruled in a Montana case.

US District Judge Donald Molloy last week permanently blocked a section of the law designed to prevent employers – including many healthcare facilities – from discriminating against workers by requiring them to be vaccinated against communicable diseases, including COVID-19.

“The public interest in protecting the general population from vaccine-preventable public health diseases using safe, effective vaccines is not outweighed by the difficulties encountered in realizing that interest,” Molloy concluded in his December 9 ruling.

The Montana Legislature passed the nation’s first law in 2021, about a year after the pandemic began, as some people, businesses and Republican lawmakers pushed back health care measures enacted to prevent the virus from spreading, which is now spreading has killed more than 1 million people in the United States. Just over 3,600 Montana residents have died from COVID-19, state officials say.

Montana law made it illegal to deny a person services, goods, or employment because of their immunization status. The law did not change vaccination requirements in schools or daycares or remove an individual’s right to a religious or medical exemption.

Republican lawmakers who supported the law said it was necessary to respond to employers who threatened to fire workers who would not get vaccinated.

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Before signing the bill into law, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte urged lawmakers to amend it to allow long-term care facilities to require workers to receive COVID-19 vaccines if doing so would not cause the facility to lose funding under a federal guideline could.

The federal guideline was recently challenged by attorneys general in 22 states, including Montana.

The Montana Medical Association, clinics and immunocompromised patients filed a lawsuit against the state in September 2021, later joined by the Montana Nurses Association. They argued, and Molloy agreed, that treating clinics and hospitals as other than long-term care facilities made no sense for a law the state said was designed to prevent discrimination and protect private health information.

The plaintiffs argued that in some cases the same people could work in all three types of facilities on the same day.

Plaintiffs successfully argued that the law violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public entities to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. An immunocompromised patient would be vulnerable if treated in a healthcare facility where staff were unvaccinated, Molloy noted.

The law also violates the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act by not keeping the workplace free of recognized hazards, he said. The plaintiffs have proven that vaccine-preventable diseases are recognized public health hazards, Molloy wrote.

“The court’s order is a win for all Montanans – young or old, healthy or sick – who no longer have to worry about government interference in the safety of their health care in Montana,” said Vicky Byrd, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, in a statement.

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Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is reviewing the advisory to determine his next steps, spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Knudsen is leading a group of attorneys general questioning the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services order requiring health workers in long-term care facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The challenge argues that the vaccine does not prevent the virus from spreading, breakthrough infections are common and the vaccines themselves are not entirely risk-free.

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