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HELENA — The Montana Legislature has passed a bill barring government agencies and private businesses from denying goods, services and employment to people who have not been vaccinated.

Lawmakers in the House voted 67-32 Monday afternoon to advance House Bill 702 to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, generated a flurry of testimony this month about ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Montana. But proponents and critics alike have pointed out that the language of HB 702 extends beyond COVID-19, prohibiting agencies and employers from requiring vaccinations for a wide range of communicable diseases, including whooping cough, measles, rubella and hepatitis B. A similar vaccination proposal, also carried by Carlson, failed in a deadlocked House floor vote in late February.

During the House’s Monday review of several Senate amendments to HB 702, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said the bill caused him “grave concern” based on feedback he’d received from rural hospitals. That feedback, he said, suggested that visitation at hospitals and assisted-living facilities in Montana would be severely limited if HB 702 became law. However, Jones added that he and several other elected officials had had a “fairly robust discussion” with Northern Rockies Medical Center CEO Cherie Taylor by phone just prior to the floor proceedings to verify those potential impacts.

“At the end of that conversation … there was some concerns raised and representatives of the executive went and investigated these concerns,” Jones said. “They did call, the lieutenant governor, I spoke on the phone, and they have assured that in their estimation, that this is not an issue, that they feel that you will not be limited in these manners.”

Jones said he, Carlson, House Speaker Wylie Galt and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras were all part of the discussion. He concluded that he would take the governor’s office “at their word” that visitation will not be affected and vote in favor of HB 702. Jones confirmed to Montana Free Press that Charlie Brereton, the governor’s health care policy adviser, was also involved in the discussion. The governor’s office declined to comment on the call with Taylor, citing a general policy regarding private conversations.

Concerns about impacts to visitation were expressed in a joint statement from four Montana health care associations last week opposing HB 702.

“This law will affect the ability of our nursing homes and assisted living facilities to safely re-open to visitors and is in direct conflict with federal requirements and standards related to the re-opening process,” Montana Health Care Association Executive Director Rose Hughes said in the release. “This is disturbing because it is so important for these residents and families to reconnect after what they have been through this past year.”

After Monday’s vote, Montana Hospital Association spokesperson Katy Peterson told MTFP that the organization continues to have concerns that HB 702 will “materially impact hospitals” in the state. MHA reiterated the point in a news release Tuesday, stating that it believes the language of the bill will “prevent healthcare facilities from screening potential employees in the hiring process without violating the newly created discrimination provisions in the bill.”

“MHA is engaging outside legal counsel to further review the legislation,” the statement continued. “We have invited legal counsel representing hospitals from across the state to participate in this review and develop a corresponding plan of action. It is our goal to identify the necessary steps to remain in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws while mitigating any negative impacts on patient and staff safety.”

An earlier version of HB 702 included a provision allowing agencies and employers to require vaccines as long as they allow for medical and religious exemptions. That provision was amended out in the Senate, prompting Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, to question the bill’s implications for hospitals that currently require staff to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, influenza, meningitis and other diseases.

“In other words, an employer cannot ask for vaccine status of anybody, for any reason,” Stafman said on the House floor Monday. Stafman added that he’d been informed by one hospital that lifting employee vaccination requirements will result in visitation limits or even prohibitions to protect the health of patients, and will necessitate mask use by staff and visitors at all times.

Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, also spoke to the issue prior to the House vote. Buttrey echoed Jones’ hesitation, and said the assurances provided by the governor’s office Monday had addressed his concerns about impacts to hospital visitation and to the willingness of companies to conduct business in Montana if vaccine requirements are lifted. Buttrey held up a flyer he said the Montana Hospital Association was recommending hospitals use to inform people that visitation will be “prohibited or significantly restricted and that all employees are going to have to wear masks at all times” if HB 702 passes.

“I’ve now understood that’s not going to be the case,” Buttrey said. “But because we have our most vulnerable in those facilities and we have people that we don’t know what they’re carrying around or what they’re immune to, it concerned me. So I’m glad that’s been addressed.”

HB 702 will now move to Gianforte’s desk for his consideration.

This story was updated April 27, 2021, to include a statement from the Montana Hospital Association responding to the passage of HB 702.

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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...