For the time being Logan Health employees will not need to become vaccinated for COVID-19 or file for a religious or medical exemption, according to an email sent out to staff Wednesday by hospital CEO and President Dr. Craig Lambrecht.
On Tuesday a federal district judge in Louisiana issued a nationwide injunction in response to a lawsuit seeking to stop the mandate for healthcare facility staff vaccinations, which was issued by the Biden administration through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Thirteen states signed onto the suit, including Montana.
“What this essentially means is that this may be a temporary pause only to be reinstated and we, like others are uncertain of the timeframe,” Lambrecht wrote in his Wednesday email. “Therefore we will continue to gather information so that we are prepared should reinstatement happen.”
In a bulleted list, Lambrecht outlined more specifically what Tuesday’s legal news means for employees: it’s now voluntary for employees to provide an updated vaccine attestation; the process for requesting an exemption is suspended “pending legal resolution;” and “Employment for those who have not begun the vaccination process will not be impacted due to the CMS mandate.”
Ahead of a nearing federal deadline, the hospital announced last week that it was moving forward with employee vaccine requirements in order to come into CMS compliance for healthcare facility staff. There are more than 4,000 Logan Health employees, and those who did not meet the vaccine or exemption requirements would no longer be allowed to work on site, a hospital spokesperson said last week.
Noncompliance would jeopardize Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, which apply to more than 400,000 visits annually at Logan Health, according to a statement issued by hospital last week.
Rich Rasmussen, the CEO and President of the Montana Hospital Association, told the Beacon on Nov. 29 that hospitals in the state annually receive around $2.1 billion in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, which accounts for 67% of statewide hospital revenue. In total Rasmussen said there are 524,000 residents covered by Medicare, Medicaid and the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). At the time, he said he was unaware of any hospitals in the state that were not planning on complying with the vaccine requirement.
“If a hospital chose to defy the rule, and CMS were to follow through on its directive to withhold funding from those programs, those hospitals would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible to remain financially viable,” Rasmussen said at the time.
Two days later, Rasmussen issued a statement on behalf of the Montana Hospital Association in response to the judge’s injunction.
“With the federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement now on hold, Montana hospitals have ceased the implementation of the federal vaccine mandate and will focus on continued compliance with Montana state law,” Rasmussen wrote. “Montana healthcare providers have been in the very difficult position of complying with conflicting state and federal laws. We value every one of our team members and it is unfortunate that they have been drawn into this conflict.”
Montana Republicans in the last legislative session passed Montana House Bill 702, which prohibits businesses and government entities from treating people differently because of their vaccination status.
The federal CMS mandate has been interpreted by hospitals in the state to supersede the authority of state law.
On Nov. 29, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen told the Beacon that, in light of a Missouri judge’s limited injunction on a similar case, he was cautiously optimistic and expected the judge to rule this week on the request for an injunction.
Knudsen described the vaccine requirement as “wrongheaded to start with,” and predicted that “a large group” of people would choose to quit or be fired rather than comply with the mandate, which he said would make healthcare worker shortages in the state worse.
“In the past weeks, I’ve heard from healthcare workers across our state whose jobs were being threatened if they did not comply with President Biden’s overreaching federal mandate,” Knudsen said in a statement emailed out to media Tuesday. “With the CMS mandate now blocked in Montana until the case is decided, medical facilities have no reason to threaten their employees if they don’t get the vaccine.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte also put out a statement in which he celebrated the vaccine mandate injunction. Gianforte similarly framed the issue as one that could cost jobs and exacerbate a worker shortage. He referred to the vaccine mandate as “the president’s unlawful overreach” and characterized it as “unconstitutional.”
Adam Meier, the Director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) issued a statement by email Wednesday in which he said the agency he runs is “pleased” with the injunction halting the implementation of the CMS vaccine mandate, “particularly in light of its legal shortcomings and the dire impact it would have on frontier states like Montana.”
Concluding that with HB 702 remaining “the law of the land,” Meier went on to encourage Montanans “to talk to their trusted, personal health care provider and get vaccinated.” Among Montana’s eligible population 51% of people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Flathead County’s vaccination rate sits almost 10% lower than the state, with 42% of its eligible population fully vaccinated.
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