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Montana Republicans seek leniency on vaccine mandates

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HELENA – Montana’s governor and its two Republican members of Congress are asking the Biden administration to grant exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate to federally funded health care facilities where losing unvaccinated staff might jeopardize access to medical care.

Gov. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale made the request Wednesday, Jan. 26 in a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“Like many states across the nation, Montana is already facing labor shortages, especially in the healthcare industry, which severely threaten patient access to lifesaving medical care,” they wrote.

“Some Montana facilities cannot afford to lose another healthcare professional, especially when alternative measures can be implemented, such as masking and testing, to protect the safety and health of employees, patients and visitors from COVID-19,” they wrote.

The letter asks the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid to consider facility staffing challenges and preserving residents’ access to health care, especially in rural areas, “when deciding whether to pursue enforcement actions against a facility.”

Under the federal mandate, workers at Montana facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement must have at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 14. Facilities must allow for exemptions for medical reasons or for sincerely held religious beliefs, but cannot provide exemptions to any staff “who requests an exemption solely to evade the vaccination.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ultimately could cut off funding to facilities that don’t comply with the mandate.

Its guidance documents indicate it will grant leniency to places that have at least 80 percent compliance and an improvement plan in place, and it will seek to encourage others before taking more heavy-handed action.

Montana is experiencing a record number of COVID-19 cases, with an average of 2,147 known cases per day reported over the last week and a record high 16,125 known active cases on Wednesday, state officials reported.

There were 326 people hospitalized Wednesday, Jan. 26, nearly three times the 113 that were hospitalized a month ago.

About 54 percent of Montana’s eligible population, or nearly 547,500 people, are fully immunized, officials said.

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