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Legislature Sees Bills Broadening Vaccine Exemptions

A child is immunized against measles, mumps and rubella in Lyon, France.
A child is immunized against measles, mumps and rubella in Lyon, France.

Montana lawmakers are considering bills to expand who is eligible for vaccine-mandate exemptions in workplaces and schools.

Senate Bill 132 would require employers to allow any employee to claim exemption from workplace vaccine mandates. It has already passed through the state Senate on a party-line vote. 

Currently, only employees who have legitimate medical or religious restrictions can be exempt from workplace vaccine requirements. Republican Sen. Keith Regier from Kalispell said the bill aims to prevent discrimination. 

“If one subgroup can have an alternative accommodation, then all should be offered the same accommodation," he said.

Regier brought the same bill in 2019. It died on the House floor after the Senate endorsed it. 

Representatives of the five Providence hospitals in Montana, and of the Billings Clinic facilities, spoke in opposition to the bill. They said hospital employees are required to get flu shots annually to protect patients. Aimee Grmoljez spoke on behalf of Billings Clinic. 

“Part of patient safety is keeping them well, and not infecting them with something while they’re in our facility," she said.

A separate bill would expand which licensed health care providers can write students medical exemptions for the vaccines that are required to attend school. House Bill 334 would also prohibit health departments from reviewing a completed medical exemption statement given to a school. 

About a dozen parents spoke in support of the bill, saying they want more flexibility to opt out of vaccinations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on-time vaccination of kids throughout childhood helps provide immunity before they are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases.

Jim Murphy, who leads the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Communicable Disease Bureau, spoke in opposition to the bill. He said it gives too broad of a definition for who could write vaccination exemptions.

“A health care provider that might not have ever been involved in the vaccination of somebody, or might be something like a massage therapist, could be able to sign off a medical exemption for somebody," Murphy said.

Lawmakers have yet to take a vote on either bill.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.