Employers in healthcare settings other than long-term care facilities can require employees to be vaccinated against communicable diseases, a federal judge has ruled.

Although the part of the Montana law that US District Judge Donald Molloy struck down already excluded nursing homes from being barred from mandating vaccinations, his ruling Friday could apply to any present or future laws that include nursing homes in other states, or federally. 

The law signed in 2021 made it illegal for a person to be denied services, goods or employment based on his or her vaccine status. It did not change vaccine requirements at schools or daycare facilities or eliminate a person’s right to seek a religious or medical exemption.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) had asked legislators before he signed the measure that long-term care facilities be excluded from the 2021 law if including them would cost them federal funding. 

Molloy decided the right to choose to decline vaccinations does not outweigh public health and safety requirements in medical environments.

“The public interest in protecting the general populace against vaccine-preventable diseases in health care settings using safe, effective vaccines is not outweighed by the hardships experienced to accomplish that interest,” Molloy said in the ruling, according to media reports.

The ruling says that the state can’t enforce the law in healthcare settings and cannot use the law to interfere with the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services rule that requires healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Clinicians against the law

The Montana Nurses Association joined a group of clinics and immunocompromised people  and the Montana Medical Association in a lawsuit against the state in September 2021. 

Molloy agreed with their argument that treating clinics and hospitals differently from long-term care facilities did not make sense since it’s not unusual for employees to work in all three types of facilities the same day.

“The Court’s order is a win for all Montanans — young or old, healthy or sick — who no longer need to worry about government interference with the safety of their healthcare in Montana,” Vicky Byrd, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, said in a statement.

The Montana Health Care Association did not respond for a request by McKnight’s Long-Term Care News to comment by production deadline.

The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs’ position that the law violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public facilities to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Molloy said an immunosuppressed patient would be vulnerable if he or she were treated at a healthcare facility where the employees were not vaccinated.

Finally, Molloy found that the law violated the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act by failing to keep the workplace free from recognized hazards. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a defendant, is weighing an appeal, according to a statement from his office’s spokeswoman. Knudsen is leading a group of attorneys general challenging the CMS mandate that healthcare workers in long-term care facilities be vaccinated against COVID-19.