A bill from a state legislator would let pharmacists give most types of vaccines to children ages 7 and up, a change pharmacists say would help more kids stay safe from things like the flu, which killed a kindergartner in Missoula at the end of last year.
Rep. Casey Knudsen, a Republican from Malta, is carrying House Bill 231. He said in rural parts of the state, getting a kid in to a doctor's office for shots can be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, and pharmacies are a less-expensive but just-as-safe option.
“If all they want is to get a vaccine, they should be able to just get a vaccine. They shouldn’t have to sit in a waiting room for an hour and go through all the other screenings if that’s not what they're there for,” Knudsen said Wednesday in front of the House Human Services Committee.
Opponents say allowing pharmacists to give shots could lead to gaps in tracking if children and people have received vaccines, and take away a point of contact between doctors and patients leading to poor health outcomes.
In Montana, pharmacies can give flu shots to those who are 12 and older and other shots to those who are 18 and older. Most of the series of childhood vaccines are finished before the age of 7, a pharmacist said. Pharmacies can give vaccines on a list created by their state board based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.
A woman who spoke in support of the bill said she is a part-owner of a farm equipment sales company that operates in rural Montana. In Glasgow, she said her employees struggle to get vaccines at places like the local hospital's clinic, which does not offer shots, or the local health department, which only does immunizations for a few hours one day a week. There are, however, two pharmacies in town, she said.
“This bill is about access, especially in our rural and frontier communities,” Sarah Swanson said.
Jonathan Griffin, a family physician and president of the Montana Medical Association, said he felt the bill “blows a hole” in the comprehensive care approach doctors try to achieve with patients. He said there can be gaps in reporting if patients have had immunizations from a pharmacy, leading to confusion and missed immunizations. Griffin also said if patients aren’t going to the doctor for vaccines, they don’t have a chance to speak with their caregivers about other health issues.
“There are a lot of reasons why we want our patients showing up in a physician or a provider's office beyond vaccines,” Griffin said.
Complicating things is that Montana is one of just three states where people must opt in to a system that tracks vaccines; it's required to report immunizations to a tracking system elsewhere. Knudsen said he’d be open to an amendment requiring pharmacists to input immunization data into the tracking system as long as other providers like doctors would as well.
Others opposed to the bill raised concerns about the complexity of childhood vaccines and the safety of delivering the shots in a pharmacy setting.