HELENA – Medical providers and Montana residents with compromised immune systems are challenging the only law in the U.S. that prevents employers from mandating workers get vaccinated amid a surge of COVID-19 infections.
They argue the new law violates federal requirements for safe workplaces and reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities and want a federal judge to rule that it doesn’t apply to hospitals and other medical providers.
The Montana Medical Association, private physician groups, a Missoula hospital and seven individuals filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Wednesday, arguing the law inhibits providers’ ability to “practice ethical and effective medicine” by requiring them to employ unvaccinated workers who are more likely to spread infections and diseases than vaccinated workers.
The 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 says.
“The Montana Medical Association is joining this lawsuit to restore a physician’s ability to protect the safety of their vulnerable patients when providing needed medical services,” the group said in a statement.
Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law this year that says requiring vaccines as a condition of employment is discriminatory and violates the state’s human rights laws.
Supporters said the law was needed in response to employers coercing employees to get vaccinations under the threat of losing their jobs.
This month, President Joe Biden asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write a rule requiring employers with at least 100 workers to mandate they get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he would challenge that rule, calling it unlawful and un-American. The Republican has encouraged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but has maintained it should be a voluntary decision.
Biden also announced the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will require vaccinations of employees at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, including hospitals and nursing homes.
The Montana law allows health care facilities to require unvaccinated workers or those who refuse to disclose their vaccination status to wear masks and take other precautions against spreading disease.
However, the complaint argues that the law prevents medical providers from taking steps to protect employees and patients who have compromised immune systems and also violates the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide workplaces free from hazards.
The presence of unvaccinated medical workers undermines the credibility of medical providers “when they urge vaccine-hesitant patients to become vaccinated, even when the vaccines may be in the best interest of the patients and of the public at large,” the complaint argues.
It does not challenge the law as it applies to employers other than medical providers.
State Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Commissioner of Labor and Industry Laurie Esau were named as defendants.
“Attorney General Knudsen will defend the law,” spokesperson Emilee Cantrell said. “He is committed to protecting Montanans’ right to privacy and their ability to make their own health care decisions.”
Esau hasn’t been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment on pending litigation.
Montana has reported nearly 17,000 new cases of COVID-19 in September and 123 deaths in the past three weeks. Just over 400 people were hospitalized Thursday, compared with about 250 at the beginning of the month.
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