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Judge: Montana can’t enforce ban on mandating vaccines

March 18, 2022 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana cannot enforce a state law that prevents most health care facilities from mandating vaccines while an interim federal rule is in place requiring millions of health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula said his preliminary injunction applies only while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid interim rule is in effect because the federal rule takes precedence over the state law.

The rule, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in January, requires COVID-19 vaccinations or religious or medical exemptions on file for staff at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers.

The federal rule, and Molloy’s injunction, only apply to COVID-19 shots and do not apply to health care entities that are not regulated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

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After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid rule, many of Montana’s larger medical facilities said they would meet its requirements.

Health System in Great Falls said 37 of its employees left their jobs instead of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for exemptions, The Billings Gazette reported last month.

Other facilities reported that they were in compliance with the federal rules, but declined to say how many employees were vaccinated compared to how many received exemptions.

“The order does little to change status quo and is drastically narrowed from what the plaintiffs were seeking,” Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, said Friday. “It is only in place so long as the Biden administration’s Interim Final Rule stands, which Attorney General Knudsen is continuing to challenge in federal court.”

The Montana Medical Association, which represents physicians across the state, said it was pleased with the court’s decision “to provide relief to health care professionals, facilities and patients who are caught in the middle of a conflict between our governments, state and federal.

“Today’s court decision ensures Montana health care providers and facilities can comply with the federal rule requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most health care settings and not face the potential loss of significant Medicare funding without conflicting with state law,” the association said in a statement.

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The 2021 Montana Legislature passed a first-in-the-nation law that made it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s vaccine status in providing services, access to public accommodations or employment. It included an exemption for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in case the federal government threatened to pull Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement.

The Montana Medical Association and some medical providers and clinics filed a lawsuit in September 2021 arguing that they should be exempt from the new state law, as well.

The state law — which applies to all vaccinations — prevents medical providers from complying “with national standards for the care and treatment of patients, including observing and enforcing infectious disease prevention protocols,” the complaint stated.