BILLINGS — Staff with the two major hospitals in Billings both said on Wednesday they will halt their rollout of the federal vaccine mandate for healthcare workers after the rule was blocked by a federal judge.
The mandate handed down from President Joe Biden would have required employees at healthcare facilities that receive funding from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services would have had to have their first shot by Monday, Dec. 6.
Billings Clinic Chief Human Resources Officer Jonathan McDermott said staff is hitting pause on the federal vaccine mandate. The federal rule is in conflict with state law. Specifically, House Bill 702, which prevents discrimination of employment based on vaccination status and was passed by the Montana State Legislature this year.
”Billings Clinic, back in January, right as the vaccines were coming out and before House Bill 702, did not mandate the COVID vaccine at that point in time. Then we had House Bill 702. At that time, we were waiting to see what the experience was going to be with the vaccine and those kinds of things. Then House Bill 702 came about, so now we’re just back to where we were," McDermott said.
Since the vaccine mandate was announced at the start of November, McDermott said about 50 additional Billings Clinic employees either got their shot or received a medical and/or religious exemption. That means 80% — or approximately 3,700 Billings Clinic employees — are vaccinated or exempt, McDermott said. About 300 Billings Clinic employees have the exemption, McDermott said.
The 80% vaccination rate is similar to the rate found among members of the Montana Nurses Association, a political advocacy group that represents about 3,000 of the 18,000 nurses in Montana.
“About 1,039 nurses responded to our survey. Which, that was a huge huge response back. We were super glad to get that. Eighty-five percent of them were vaccinated. I know that 85% of the nurses got vaccinated under emergency authorization because it’s the right thing to do and we need to care for our community and our patients and each other," said Vicky Byrd, CEO of Montana Nurses Association.
SCL Health St. Vincent, the other major provider in Billings, released a statement Wednesday, saying it will take a similar route as Billings Clinic, halting the rollout of the federal mandate.
"SCL Health has always followed all state and federal orders, and the safety of our patients and caregivers remains our top priority. The Louisiana federal district court has issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), preventing it from enforcing its national COVID vaccination mandate. We will pause implementing the CMS vaccination mandate until a final resolution of the case is reached," the statement reads.
The Montana Hospital Association represents 82 hospitals across Montana released a Wednesday statement saying its members have stopped implementing the federal vaccine mandate and will focus to comply with Montana state laws.