Bill to prohibit vaccine status discrimination may have lasting effects on MT hospitals

HELENA, Mont. - As more COVID-19 restrictions are lifted nationwide, Governor Greg Gianforte now has a bill on his desk that would prohibit discrimination based on vaccine status.

This would include all vaccines beyond just the COVID-19 shots and the implications of this legislation could be far-reaching.

At hospitals like St. Peter's in Helena, masks might be permanently required if this bill is signed into law. If visitors don't comply, they may be limited from going inside or banned altogether.

Because this bill would pertain to all types of vaccines, hospitals and healthcare providers cannot even ask if a person has been vaccinated. So, they would not know which patients or visitors have received vaccines even for diseases like measles, mumps or polio. 

This means that hospitals, like St Peter's, would have to treat anyone with the assumption they have not been vaccinated. 

Rich Rasmussen is the CEO of the Montana Hospital Association, and he says this bill would put Montana health care facilities in an impossible spot.

"Healthcare facilities are stuck in the middle here,” Rasmussen said. “We've got federal guidelines, in some situations federal rules pushing on one side and state law pushing on the other, and we want to figure out how to make this work. But if we can't, we certainly have to look at what other remedies there might be in the future to try and address this."

Rasmussen also says that while these restrictions are the last things that hospitals want to do, they may have no other choice as a remedy to the challenges that this bill would create.

"Hospitals do not want to place our patients or our employees in any place of risk,” Rasmussen said. “We want to make sure that they're in the safest environment. So we're not trying to be obtuse, we just want to make sure that what we're doing aligns with the rules and regulations and also protects our patients and our employees."

Vaccination status has long been a hot topic in Montana that the legislature has tried to address. Democratic governors vetoed bills from previous sessions. In Great Falls, protests have been taking place outside of Benefis Medical Center, where the hospital recently announced it would require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine by July 1.

If Gov. Gianforte does sign this bill into law, ironically it would go into effect on the same day.

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