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Montana Lawmakers Send Bill Loosening Vaccine Requirements To Governor

Llew Jones speaks into a microphone surrounded by colleagues in the state capitol building.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Montana Republican Rep. Llew Jones addresses House Bill 702 on April 26, 2021.

Legislation that could prevent Montana businesses and government agencies from denying people services or employment because of vaccination status is heading to the governor’s desk. Lawmakers passed the bill over objections from health care industry leaders, who say it will prevent the state from returning to a pre-pandemic normal.

Republicans in the House and Senate moved the bill forward largely along party lines. But some members of the GOP said it could be risky.

Minutes before a House vote, Conrad Republican Rep. Llew Jones said he had “grave concern,” that loosening vaccination requirements could curb visitation access in hospitals and assisted-living centers, including the one where his mother lives.

He said Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office reassured him and other lawmakers that those concerns won’t be an issue.

“I will be a green on this, but I would be remiss not to share that this would be a bad one to be wrong on,” Jones says.

Democratic Rep. Ed Stafman said a hospital in his Bozeman district would have to limit visitation, and require mask-wearing indefinitely among patients, staff and visitors if House Bill 702 is signed into law.

Health care industry leaders echoed those claims during a Monday press conference, saying providers have to operate as if no one is vaccinated if they can’t mandate shots.

Montana Hospital Association President Rich Rasmussen said hospitals and clinics would be forced to permanently adopt pandemic conditions or run afoul of federal health care law.

“House Bill 702 upends 50 years of medical science and compliance, and practices that health care facilities have used to protect employees, patients and visitors,” Rasmussen says.

Rasmussen said this bill could increase hospitals’ liability if viruses spread and could lead to higher patient health care costs.

“If you put a hospital in a position where they’re going to have to turn their back on federal guidance, that will be built into that rate and cost,” Rasmussen says.

Rasmussen said health care providers already allow vaccination exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, said the bill may be challenged in court, if it’s signed into law.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.