Montana healthcare providers, patients challenge state ban on vaccine requirements

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A group including medical providers, individual patients and the Montana Medical Association is challenging a Montana state law that prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status, according to court documents and media reports.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 22 in U.S. District Court in Missoula, argues that Montana's law preventing employers from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and sections of the Montana Constitution.

Statutory provisions of the Montana law "restrict the ability of physician offices and hospitals, within their professional judgment, to determine the conditions of employment based upon a person's vaccination or immunity status or prevents such from otherwise appropriately addressing an unvaccinated employee, contractor or prospective employee or contractor," the lawsuit asserts.

In a statement issued following the filing of the lawsuit, the Montana Medical Association said it joined the complaint because the Montana law "jeopardizes physicians' ability to maintain best practices now in place for protecting patients and staff from vaccine-preventable diseases."

"While passed in the context of COVID-19, [the law] has wide-ranging impacts outside of the current pandemic. This suit is challenging the impact HB 702 is having on physician offices providing quality, safe healthcare to patients. It is about protecting patients and staff in doctor's offices and clinics across Montana," the association said.

At issue in the lawsuit is House Bill 702 as it applies to physicians and hospitals in Montana.

The bill, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May, includes prohibiting an employer or government entity from refusing employment to a person or discriminating against a person in compensation or in a term, condition, or privilege of employment based on the individual's vaccination status.

A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, said in a statement to The Hill that the attorney general "is committed to protecting Montanan's right to privacy and their ability to make their own healthcare decisions."

A spokesperson for Mr. Gianforte told The Hill the governor's office "generally doesn't comment on ongoing or pending litigation, but ultimately what this comes down to is that no Montanan should be discriminated against based on his or her vaccination status."

"While we will not mandate vaccination in Montana, the governor will continue encouraging Montanans to talk with their doctor or pharmacist and get vaccinated, because vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save lives," the spokesperson said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are individual patients, the Montana Medical Association, private physician groups and a Missoula hospital. They seek a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Montana law.

Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry Laurie Esau is also a defendant in the lawsuit.

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