Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte headshot
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte

5/7/21: Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 702 into law with amendments exempting assisted living facilities from compliance it it placed them at odds with federal regulations and guidance.

A bill under consideration in Montana, which would prohibit employers from asking about and creating protocols related to an individual’s vaccination status, would exempt assisted living communities and other long-term care facilities thanks to an amendment from Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) approved by the state Legislature.

House Bill 702, however, still would prohibit employers from requiring any type of vaccination as a condition of employment.

Senior living and healthcare organizations in the state had raised concerns that the bill could leave them at odds with federal requirements and leave them with the inability to protect residents and patients.

Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, told McKnight’s Senior Living that her greatest concern about the original bill was being in a situation where members would be out of compliance with state law if they followed federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and directives.

“The legislation, prior to the amendment, prohibited using vaccination status to in any way treat residents, staff or visitors differently, putting us in direct conflict with visitation, dining and other guidance that, in fact, differentiate between those who are and aren’t vaccinated,” Hughes said. The governor’s amendment provides a “clear exemption” for assisted living communities, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities following that guidance, she added. 

A second amendment, Hughes pointed out, specifically would allow healthcare facilities to ask employees about vaccination status and to assume that an employee is unvaccinated if he or she does not provide that information. But most importantly, she said, the amendment would allow operators to “implement reasonable accommodation measures for employees, patients, visitors and other persons who are not vaccinated or not immune to protect the safety and health of employees, patients, visitors and other persons from communicable diseases.”

The original bill language would have prevented any business, including healthcare facilities, from asking or requiring any type of vaccination. Gianforte sent the bill back to the Legislature with his proposed changes, according to the Montana Free Press. The House and Senate both adopted the amendments. 

Hughes said the legislation applies to all vaccines, not just COVID-19 vaccines. Few, if any, of MHCA member facilities have mandated the COVID-19 vaccines, she added. Without mandates, at least 85% to 90% of assisted living and nursing home residents, and at least 50% to 55% of staff members, are vaccinated, Hughes added.

Some facilities currently do require other vaccinations, including whooping cough, hepatitis and influenza vaccinations, she said.

If the governor signs HB 702, “they will be unable to mandate vaccines but will be able to implement measures to protect residents, staff and visitors if individuals are unvaccinated,” Hughes said. “While not perfect, we believe the legislation, as amended, addresses most of our concerns and allows us to do what is required for the health and safety of residents, staff and visitors.”

HB 702 would take effect July 1, if signed by the governor.

Montana law already allows people with medical conditions or religious beliefs to opt out of vaccinations. Gianforte also recently issued an executive order banning “vaccine passports.”