Despite Montana’s health care industry warning that masks and visitation restrictions at medical facilities could become permanent, House Republicans passed a bill Monday that would prevent hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities from requiring any type of immunizations for staff, visitors or patients.
While indicating they had read House Bill 702 as doing just that, two influential GOP lawmakers in the House stood up to speak in favor of the bill, saying they had gotten assurances from the office of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte that the concerns brought by medical providers were overblown.
“I now understand that’s not going to be the case, but because we have our most vulnerable in those facilities and we have people who don’t know what they’re carrying around or what they’re immune to, it concerned me,” Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said, speaking in favor of the bill during the House's debate. “So I’m glad that’s been addressed.”
Rep. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican who is the top lawmaker on the House Appropriations Committee, rarely speaks on the floor about policy bills, but also rose to offer a lukewarm endorsement of the measure.
“All my rural hospitals weighed in and they shared that visitation rights could be potentially significantly limited, (and) the nursing homes and assisted living centers,” Jones said, adding that his mother lives in an assisted living facility.
He said he had “grave concerns” about the measure, but that he had met with a group that included Republican Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, Lt. Gov. Kristin Juras and a medical policy expert from the governor’s office, and they allayed his concerns. Speaking after the floor session, Jones acknowledged some lingering issues with the bill, but repeated that he was deferring to "the second floor" of the Capitol, where the governor's office is housed.
“Plainly reading it, my concerns exist,” Jones said. “Listening to the lawyer and the medical experts on the second floor, they said that that’s not real. That they didn’t perceive it as real. … What I’d really hate to find out is when I go to visit my mother you’re not allowed to.”
The governor's office didn't immediately return a request for clarification on that interpretation of the bill Monday.
Earlier in the day, organizations representing physicians, hospitals and other medical providers held a joint press conference in which they spoke out forcefully against the measure. They argued the bill would forbid them from continuing to require that staff be inoculated to keep potential carriers of vaccine-preventable diseases away from vulnerable populations, like nursing homes or neonatal intensive care units. Those facilities also wouldn't be allowed to limit unvaccinated patients from accessing facilities where vulnerable populations are housed, they said.
“This bill goes way beyond any objections to COVID-19 vaccines and unravels more than 50 years of medical science and expert guidance in protecting patients and health care workers from infectious diseases,” said Rich Rasmussen, the president and chief executive officer of the Montana Hospital Association.
Rasmussen said hospitals will be forced “to operate under the assumption that no one has been vaccinated,” potentially resulting in being forced to indefinitely require visitors to wear masks. Some facilities, like ICUs or nursing homes, could prohibit all visitors as a result, medical officials said, because the risks posed by some vaccine-preventable diseases are too high.
Dr. Pam Cutler, President of the Montana Medical Association, argued that other states that have enacted similar legislation have seen vaccination rates go down, and the rates of diseases go up.
“Our vulnerable populations, children, the elderly, children with cancer, these groups really need to know their fellow Montanans and their government officials are doing everything they can to protect them,” Cutler said.
She added, “Other than the rare, legitimate medical or religious exemptions, every eligible person that makes the choice to not be vaccinated is making a choice that puts others at risk.”
Freedom of choice was exactly why Republicans argued the legislation is needed. Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, sponsored the bill, and sought to reassure lawmakers that despite what the medical industry said would be the effects of the bill, it wouldn’t substantially change anything.
“This bill does not in any way prevent any employer from taking reasonable safety precautions, just as any hospital currently does, for example, with an employee who does not have a flu shot,” Carlson said.
The House concurred with the Senate amendments to HB 702 by a party-line, 67-32 final vote. The bill now goes to Gianforte to consider.