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Yellowstone Co. health officials are going ahead with staff vaccine mandate

Yellowstone Co. health officials are going ahead with staff vaccine mandate

COVID-19 vaccinations

New CMS rule requires vaccination for healthcare workers in Montana and the first compliance deadline is three weeks from Nov. 16.

RiverStone Health, St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic officials say they remain committed to caring for their patients and community in the safest way possible. In a joint press release Tuesday, they said they remain committed to complying with all federal requirements surrounding the safe delivery of healthcare in the communities they serve.

Recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued its final interim rule requiring most Medicare and Medicaid certified providers to ensure their staff is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Failure to comply with the CMS COVID-19 Health Care Staff vaccination rule could result in monetary penalties, denial of payment or termination from Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“Bottom line, to ensure that we can continue caring for tens of thousands of patients covered by Medicare/Medicaid, we are requiring our healthcare workers to become vaccinated against COVID-19,” they said in a joint press release.

The interim final rule allows for exemption from the vaccination requirements and each organization is in the process of planning for the evaluation of those requests.

The CMS rule specifically preempts the application of any state or local law to the contrary and therefore this rule supersedes Montana House Bill 702, which was passed earlier this year to prevent employers from mandating vaccination.

“We recognize that several states have challenged the CMS rule,” the leaders said. “But, because the first compliance deadline is three weeks away, our organizations are proceeding with plans and processes to comply with the CMS rule.

The vaccine mandate has been controversial among many health care workers. As recently as Monday, Nov. 8, for example, at least 35% of Billings Clinic's staff was not yet fully vaccinated. Billings Clinic is the state's largest hospital.

Other hospitals in Montana are feeling the pressure to comply. Immanuel Lutheran Communities in Kalispell receives 90% of its funding from CMS, meaning without it the facility would be forced to close its 300-bed facility, according to CEO of Jason Cronk.

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and they reduce hospitalizations and death, the Yellowstone County officials said.

“As healthcare providers, it is our duty and obligation to care for and protect individual patients, including the most vulnerable among us, as well as ensure the health and well-being of our community. Therefore, we are complying with the requirements as outlined in the CMS interim final rule,” they said.

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