Federal court says CMS rule overrides Montana vaccine law

COVID vaccine
Posted at 4:14 PM, Mar 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-18 19:18:47-04

HELENA — A federal judge has placed a temporary block on part of Montana’s "vaccine anti-discrimination law," preventing state action against medical facilities that are required to have employees vaccinated for COVID-19 under a federal rule.

On Friday, Montana U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy placed a limited preliminary injunction on a portion of House Bill 702 due to it conflicting with a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) interim rule that requires staff of CMS certified facilities — such as hospitals, long-term care facilities and rehabilitation centers — to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The CMS rule was challenged, although ultimately upheld by the United States Supreme Court in January. The high court noted medical facilities have historically required vaccination for a number of diseases, such as influenza and hepatitis B.

Last year, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed HB 702 into law which prevents employers in Montana from discriminating against an individual due to their vaccination status, effectively preventing employers from requiring any kind of vaccine for employment.

The Montana Medical Association (MMA) challenged the law in September saying it “jeopardizes physicians’ ability to maintain best practices now in place for protecting patients and staff from vaccine-preventable diseases.” They also allege the law is unconstitutional.

Molloy in his ruling stated Montana medical facilities were stuck between violating state law and federal law, with both leaving facilities and staff susceptible to legal consequences. By not following the CMS rule, facilities could have lost a significant portion of their funding.

“Today’s ruling will ensure that nurses and healthcare providers in Montana are able to provide the best quality care to Montanans and ensure a safe workplace for nurses across the state,” said Vicky Byrd, MSN, RN, CEO of the Montana Nurses Association. “The Court’s ruling puts healthcare decisions back in the hands of providers and patients, not the Montana legislature.”

The MMA today released the following statement following the Court granting the preliminary injunction:

“The Montana Medical Association is pleased with the Court’s decision to provide relief to health care professionals, facilities and patients who are caught in the middle of a conflict between our governments, state and federal. Today’s court decision ensures Montana health care providers and facilities can comply with the federal rule requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most health care settings and not face the potential loss of significant Medicare funding without conflicting with state law.

As physicians, we will protect what is in the best interests of our patients and look forward to the next steps of this lawsuit.”

The limited preliminary injunction will remain in place so long as the interim CMS rule remains in effect.

Read the full ruling below.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include quotes from The Montana Medical Association and Montana Nurses Association.