Montana healthcare facilities report vaccine compliance, with some quitting their jobs | State and Region

Hospitals, nursing homes and all other facilities accepting Medicaid across Montana have been busy processing data on staff vaccinations, exemptions and, in some cases, unemployment.

February 14 marked the first deadline for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) COVID-19 vaccine mandate. All employees working in a facility receiving reimbursement from the federal agency are required to provide proof of at least one dose of vaccine or a medical or religious exemption.

At Benefis Health System in Great Falls, 37 employees chose to terminate their employment rather than get vaccinated or try to get an exemption. The resignations were not concentrated in any specific department or type of employee, according to Whitney Bania, senior communications specialist at Benefis.

About 4% of staff were granted a medical or religious waiver and of these, 29% were medical deferrals and 71% were religious deferrals.

Those who fall into the vaccinated camp represent 94.6% of employees.

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Other health facilities have chosen to remain tight-lipped about their compliance.

Bozeman Health will report only 83% of its staff are fully vaccinated. Hospital officials say the facility is in compliance with CMS requirements, but requests for exemptions are still being processed, according to Kallie Kujawa, chief transformation officer at Bozeman Health.

Kujawa wouldn’t say how many exemptions were submitted or how many workers were furloughed for noncompliance, saying releasing the numbers would compromise employee identities. There are 2,400 people employed at Bozeman Health.

The decision not to disclose the compliance breach was made out of a “desire to keep staff employed and protect their identities,” Kujawa said.

In Lewistown, where 340 people are employed at Central Montana Medical Center, a mix of exemption and vaccination has brought the hospital to 100% compliance. The hospital chose not to publish how workers complied with the rule for privacy reasons, said Stephanie Prater, the facility’s community relations manager.

Rich Rasmussen of the Montana Hospital Association said keeping vaccination numbers confidential has been traditional practice for the flu vaccine. He added that exemptions have also been a feature of flu vaccination for years.

“The difference here is that there are some who are very keen on (COVID-19) vaccination,” Rasmussen said.

But COVID-19 differs greatly from the seasonal flu starting with the death rate. Researchers estimate that COVID-19 is 10 times deadlier than most flu strains, according to John Hopkins Medicine. And many people infected with the virus have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, thus transmitting the virus unknowingly. The long COVID can also be severe while little is known about the lasting impacts.

Rasmussen turned to pre-vaccination mitigation measures such as masking, social distancing and regular testing to prevent COVID from infecting patients.

Accommodations will be made for those working without being vaccinated under an exemption.

House Bill 702, which prohibits vaccination requirements for any preventable disease, including the traditional flu shot, could cause a pivot within hospitals.

“Masking could become a standard of care,” Rasmussen said.

Less than 2% of associates at SCL Health Montana and Wyoming did not comply with the mandate and approximately 12% received a medical or religious waiver, meaning 98% of employees were compliant.

“Those who fail to meet the deadline will be suspended for three days and considered voluntary resigners if they refuse to comply,” according to a statement from SCL Health.

At the Billings Clinic, 15 of 4,700 employees were not complying with the vaccination mandate, according to community relations coordinator Zach Benoit. The number of religious or medical exemptions was not reported, nor was the number of employees who terminated their employment beyond the requirement.

RiverStone Health also reported 100% compliance with 11% of staff using an exemption. No employees have been furloughed.

There are concerns that vaccine requirements will impact the ability to attract and hire healthcare workers.

Darcel Vaughn of Gallatin County Rest Home has so far not lost any employees because of the CMS mandate, but is reluctant to challenge any religious exemptions that come his way.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which provides guidance for vetting religious exemption forms, asks administrators to consider petitioner’s morals and ethics when approving claims, while medical exemptions require proof in the form of a doctor’s note.

“How do I go out and decide this for people?” Vaughn asked referring to religious exemptions, adding that she could see lawsuits in the future if someone refuses a religious exemption.

Gallatin County Rest Home is a skilled nursing facility with rehabilitation services with 56 payroll employees. Of these, 81% are vaccinated and 19% are exempt.

Vaughn is also responsible for the compliance status of all workers who enter his facility to provide resident services, such as palliative care.

Gov. Greg Gianforte addressed vaccination compliance in an open letter to healthcare workers published last Friday, in which he said he would continue to challenge the mandate, calling it unconstitutional or otherwise illegal.

Gianforte then encouraged unvaccinated people to consider using the religious and medical exemption forms, attaching the religious exemption form at the bottom of the letter. He added that some should consider talking to health care providers about vaccination.

“As Montanese who face a long-standing shortage of health professionals, we simply cannot afford to lose you, your colleagues, your experience and your compassionate and dedicated care due to the mandate of vaccination of President Biden,” Gianforte wrote.

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