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MT Nurses Association files to join lawsuit challenging vax requirement ban

The Montana Nurses Association on Friday filed a motion to join a lawsuit against the state's new law banning most employers from requiring vaccines.

The lawsuit was initially filed by the Montana Medical Association, doctors, clinics and patients in September. It asks a federal judge to strike down provisions in Montana's House Bill 702, which bars most employers, including hospitals, from requiring employees get vaccinated. 

Proponents of the law argue it prevents discrimination against people who choose not to get vaccinated as a personal health care choice. Rep. Jennifer Carlson, a Republican from Manhattan, previously told the Montana State News Bureau requiring vaccines is "not how America works."

The Montana Nurses Association said Friday the law endangers nurses, undermines safe working conditions in health care and interferes with the provision of high-quality health care in the state.

“Nurses are Montana’s frontline health care providers, and we have a professional commitment and ethical duty to ensure that Montana nurses are safe at work and can focus on what they care most about: providing high quality safe healthcare to our patients,” said Vicky Byrd, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, said in a press release.

Montana's vaccination rate has lagged behind the national average. Montana's daily COVID-19 case count, according to the state's cases by diagnosis date tally, has been trending downward in recent weeks, but its new cases per 100,000 remains second in the U.S. only to Alaska. Vaccines have shown to be very effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19. Data from the state health department shows from April 1 to Oct. 22, those who weren't vaccinated accounted for 84% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state and 76% of all deaths.

The law, championed by GOP lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in earlier this year, was the first of its kind in the country banning vaccine requirements from employers. It's now in contention with direction from President Joe Biden, whose looming rule aims to require businesses with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Like the Montana Medical Association, the Montana Nurses Association claims its footing in the case on workplace safety laws, federal disability laws and the state Constitution. And while the medical association's initial filing targets the provisions prohibiting vaccine requirements in hospitals and physicians offices, the nurses association requests a judge allow vaccine requirements in all health care settings, including clinics, jails, prisons and schools.

The nurses association argued in their brief that HB 702 disrupts the balance already in place where health care providers make reasonable accommodations for nurses who can't be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons. 

"It prevents health care settings from relying on professional judgement and evidence based on public health practices to manage the relationship between vaccination requirements and the provision of reasonable accommodations," the lawsuit states.

Last week Attorney General Austin Knudsen last week filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, calling the medical association's claims "meritless" and an "open wish to discriminate" against unvaccinated people. 

"The state of Montana put forward a clear policy that Montanans cannot be denied their fundamental right to pursue employment based on vaccination status," the Attorney General's Office wrote in the motion.

U.S. District Court Court Judge Donald Molloy set a Nov. 1 deadline for the medical association to respond to the Attorney General's motion to dismiss.

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