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Montana lawmakers have resumed a timely and controversial debate over state vaccination laws in recent weeks. That debate has amplified questions and concerns about health care facilities and educational institutions mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.

The issue came into sharp focus last week as the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee heard public testimony on House Bill 702, which would prohibit private businesses and government agencies in Montana from denying goods, services or employment to individuals based on their vaccination status. Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, introduced the bill last month after a similar proposal died on a deadlocked House floor vote in February. During the hearing on HB 702, several nurses testified that a Great Falls hospital was requiring its staff to be immunized against COVID-19 — a policy they said violated their freedom of choice and threatened their continued employment. Similar assertions have also surfaced online, tying the claims directly to Great Falls’ Benefis Health System.

Montana Free Press contacted Benefis directly to fact-check these claims. Senior Communications Specialist Whitney Bania replied via email to a list of questions, and confirmed that Benefis will be making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees beginning May 1. However, in keeping with current state law, Benefis staff can obtain deferrals on medical or religious grounds.

Even without the forthcoming policy, Bania said, vaccination participation has been fairly strong among the hospital’s staff.

“Since we started offering the vaccine in December 2020, 64% of Benefis employees have chosen to be vaccinated,” she said. Bania added that the policy is in line with Benefis’ standing employee policy for the seasonal influenza vaccine.

HB 702 passed a critical vote on the Senate floor Thursday after lawmakers amended the bill this week to strike a provision stating that such requirements would not be illegally discriminatory if individuals are allowed medical or religious exemptions.

Late Friday afternoon, the Montana Health Care Association, Montana Hospital Association, Montana Medical Association and Montana Primary Care Association released a joint statement opposing the bill on the grounds that “House Bill 702 will prohibit hospitals, healthcare facilities, nursing homes and senior living facilities from requiring and verifying federally-approved and recommended vaccines for staff and residents.”

“Now is not the time to add barriers that will limit our ability to keep healthcare settings safe from communicable diseases,” said Pamela Cutler, MD, president of the Montana Medical Association. “This bill jeopardizes the safety and well-being of our patients and our communities and may have long-lasting repercussions that fly in the face of public health measures found all over the world. It is illogical and extreme.”

MTFP reached out to several other Montana hospitals to inquire about any current or future employee vaccination requirements. Chris Leopold, marketing specialist for Kalispell Regional Healthcare, said KRH has not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for its staff and has no plans to implement such a policy in the near future. While he couldn’t provide an estimate of how many employees have already been vaccinated, Leopold did say that participation in staff vaccination clinics this winter was high.

“From what I’ve seen, most do get it,” Leopold said. “But there are some who have not and at this time, we have no plan to force anybody to have it.”

Leopold added that KRH does require that staff receive seasonal flu shots, and offers medical and religious exemptions under that policy. Those who obtain an exemption are required to wear a mask in KRH facilities throughout the entire flu season — a moot policy this year, Leopold noted, considering that ongoing COVID-19 protocols still require all staff to mask up.

According to spokesperson Zach Benoit, the situation is similar at Billings Clinic, where there is currently no mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy for staff. Even so, Benoit said, Billings Clinic is in “full support” of the vaccine.

“We encourage everybody who’s eligible to get it,” he said. “This is one of the ways we get through this, so we are supportive of widespread vaccination.” 

Benoit added that Billings Clinic did require all staff to receive the seasonal flu vaccine for the first time last fall, partly as a way to minimize other infectious disease threats during the pandemic. Billings Clinic also allowed for medical and religious exemptions, but employees excused from the flu vaccine weren’t held to any specific safety provisions, Benoit said, since all staff were already under masking and social distancing requirements for COVID-19.

Nationwide, a growing number of universities and colleges have begun issuing COVID-19 vaccination requirements, further fueling questions about what policies Montana may see in the months to come. Major campuses such as Duke, Notre Dame, Cornell and Rutgers have all announced in recent weeks that all students must be fully immunized against the novel coronavirus by the first day of classes this fall. And just this week, the University of California and California State University announced they would implement a system-wide requirement if one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines gains full FDA approval. Asked whether the Montana Board of Regents has discussed a similar mandate for the Montana University System, Deputy Commissioner for Academic, Research and Student Affairs Brock Tessman said he doesn’t see any such policy coming.

“The board reserves the right to make policy shifts on any matter, at least any matter within their purview,” Tessman said. “But to be real straight in response, I haven’t heard any indication that they would think about adopting a policy that would mandate vaccines.”

This story was updated April 23, 2021, to include quotations from a joint statement released after initial publication by the Montana Health Care Association, Montana Hospital Association, Montana Medical Association and Montana Primary Care Association.

Disclosure: Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, is married to MTFP director of development and operations Kristin Tessman. MTFP business staff do not have input into editorial coverage.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...