Two new bills to prohibit businesses or government agencies from refusing services to people who haven’t been vaccinated are advancing in the Legislature, despite criticism that they could endanger vulnerable people in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical settings.
House Bill 702, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, won House approval Thursday on second reading, on a nearly party-line vote.
An amendment clarifying that the bill would apply only to those who aren't vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons won wide support, but Democratic Rep. Laurie Bishop, of Livingston, said it still failed to address broader concerns that it would prohibit health care providers from keeping patients safe.
The House did not yet take up House Bill 703, a similar measure sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, which also advanced from the House Judiciary Committee on a party-line, 12-7 vote, from the House Judiciary Committee. Republicans on the committee had favored both bills while Democrats opposed them.
Both bills would apply to all immunizations, but testimony to the committee had focused on vaccines approved for COVID-19, which starting Thursday are available to all adults in Montana. Federal and state agencies, as well as medical experts and organizations from across the country, have emphasized that large-scale trials have shown each of the approved vaccines to be safe and effective in adults.
Proponents of the bills argued refusing service on the basis of vaccination status is a form of discrimination and a violation of individual freedoms, while questioning the safety of vaccines in general. Opponents to the bill included nearly a dozen organizations representing hospitals, nursing homes, assisted care facilities, child care professionals and other health care providers who argued the measures would allow people who refuse vaccines based on misinformation to endanger vulnerable populations who can’t get vaccinated.
Both bills refer explicitly to the use of immunity passports, a proposal gaining traction in some U.S. states and elsewhere in the world, for both international travel and attending large events.
“Forcing an individual to require a vaccination who has a personal history of negative reactions to vaccines is like forcing peanuts down the throat of someone who is allergic to peanuts,” Hinkle said, adding that “a large number of people have died.”
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 500,000 people in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which track adverse reactions to vaccines approved to distribution in the U.S., severe allergic reactions have been reported in two to five people out of every 1 million people vaccinated.
The CDC also reported that as of March 29, 2,509 people had died after receiving the vaccine, but a “review of available clinical information including death certificates, autopsy and medical records revealed no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths.”
No one who testified in favor of either bill identified themselves as a medical professional. Maria Wyrock, who said she helped draft SB 702, compared the issuance of vaccine passports to Nazi Germany.
“This is where we’re going. We’re going to where you’re going to be able to go to the store and they’re going to ask for your vaccine passport,” Wyrock said. “… It will lead to discrimination it will make our society fearful of each other.”
Both measures would prohibit “public accommodations” from denying access or services based on vaccine status, which many opponents to the bills argued would broadly to apply to both public and private medical facilities.
Heather O’Hara, a nurse and the vice president of the Montana Hospital Association, said it would affect the hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other health care providers the group represents. She said the bills would prevent those facilities from requiring that staff, patients or visitors be vaccinated for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis and other preventable diseases for which they currently require immunization.
“We want to make sure that we provide a safe environment for not only our patients and our residents who come to our facility to receive care, because that’s their home … but it’s also our responsibility to make sure that our employees are safe,” O’Hara said.
Carlson has also sponsored legislation to make it easier for people to skip vaccinations.
House Bill 334 passed the House on a mostly party-line vote last month, and was heard by a Senate health committee Wednesday. It seeks to expand religious and medical exemptions allowing students to attend school despite not being vaccinated for certain diseases, by increasing the number of care providers who can sign off on those exemptions.