House approves Gianforte amendment to vaccine bill

Passing the amendment to HB702 saved the bill from a veto

By: - April 28, 2021 6:14 pm

A close-up picture of a nurse giving a vaccine to a patient (Photo illustration by AdobeStock)

The Montana House has approved an amendment from Gov. Greg Gianforte to legislation preventing businesses — including those in the hospital and long-term care industries — from requiring vaccines, for COVID-19 or any other virus, as a condition of employment and service, likely clearing the way for the bill to become law.

The language in the amendment to House Bill 702 was handed down as part of an amendatory veto from the executive, meaning that both chambers have to approve the new provision or the bill dies. Gianforte returned the bill with his suggestions back to the Legislature on Wednesday.

The amendment appears to be intended to address concerns from the medical sector that the bill as written and passed would mean that hospitals would have to treat everyone in their midst as unvaccinated. This means, in the words of Montana Hospitals Association Chief Executive Rich Rasmussen, that they’ll “permanently operate under pandemic conditions and permanent visitor restrictions.”

Gianforte’s recommendation clarifies that a health care facility can ask an employee or volunteer if they are vaccinated “for the purpose of determining whether the health care facility should implement reasonable accommodation measures to protect the safety and health of employees, patients, visitors, and other persons from communicable diseases.” If the employee declines to provide that information, the facility can consider them to be unvaccinated in order to determine if reasonable precautions must be taken.

The facility must also implement “reasonable accommodation measures for employees, patients, visitors, and other persons who are not vaccinated or not immune.”

The second chunk of the amendatory veto addresses long-term care facilities like nursing homes. It clarifies that such businesses are exempt from the bill if compliance with the new statute would result “in a violation of regulations or guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

A proposed CMS rule requires healthcare facilities to report vaccination rates among staff. If that rule is adopted, conflict with state statute could lead to Montana losing out on federal healthcare funds.

“There has been some angst about this bill, and we wish to alleviate that,” said Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, HB702’s sponsor. Carlson also brought a similar bill earlier in the session that died on the floor.

This amendment clarifies that the bill allows healthcare providers to work with and accommodate unvaccinated employees as they were doing pre-Covid,” she said. 

The amendment passed on a largely party-line, 64-32 vote.

Republicans who had previously been opposed to or on the fence about the concept expressed in the bill gave their reluctant support to the bill on Wednesday, counting on assurances from the governor’s office that the amendment language would prevent the state from running afoul of federal rules and regulations or compromising public safety.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said he still had concerns, including that the bill could create substantial legal liability if someone gets sick. He also wondered why the amendment didn’t include the same exemption for hospitals as it created for long-term care facilities.

Democrats said they weren’t convinced by the amendment’s changes.

Despite the unspecified assurances we’re hearing from the second floor, use your common sense,” said Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman. “How does a hospital make an accommodation for a surgeon whose vaccination status precludes him from safely performing surgery? Assign him to desk duty?”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.