St. Peter’s responds to special counsel report, stands by claims of threats from state officials

Hospital: ‘Individuals leveraged their official positions in an attempt to influence clinical care’

By: - November 24, 2021 1:19 pm

The Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena which houses the Attorney General’s Office, the Montana Supreme Court and the state law library (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

St. Peter’s Health in Helena responded Wednesday to the release of a legislative report this week about a dispute between the hospital and several state officials arising from an allegation of patient mistreatment, reasserting claims it first made in October that “providers and care team members were threatened and harassed when they refused to administer treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the FDA and the CDC.”

When state officials became involved, the hospital said, “a law enforcement response and a lawsuit were threatened.”

The report, assembled and released by the legislative special counsel, does not posit any legal findings — by law, the counsel is limited to a review of government documents — but draws an outline of a series of incidents the hospital first discussed publicly in October: In broad strokes, a friend of a COVID-19 patient with connections to Republican politics in Montana hospitalized at St. Peter’s raised a series of concerns about the hospital’s treatment of the patient to Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen, who initiated a phone call with providers and a video meeting between Attorney General Austin Knudsen and hospital administrators and a board member in which both officials warned of possible legal action.

Knudsen had also sent a text to hospital board member and Montana Hospital Association lobbyist Mark Taylor that his patience with the situation was wearing thin and that he was “about to send law enforcement in and file unlawful restraint charges,” according to the report.

Following the report’s release Monday, Republican leaders asserted it showed that Knudsen did not threaten or intimidate anyone in large part due to a statement from hospital CEO Wade Johnson. Knudsen’s office has also rejected the hospital’s characterization, saying that it had a duty to investigate a claim of mistreatment.

“The special counsel’s examination did not produce any evidence to support allegations that the attorney general ‘harassed,’ ‘threatened,’ or ‘intimidated’ health care workers, as has been reported in the media,” said House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, and Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, in a statement late Monday. “To the contrary, St. Peter’s CEO explicitly said he did not feel threatened by the attorney general, and the hospital confirmed that Austin Knudsen never spoke to any medical providers.”

The counsel’s report did not address how any other hospital officials or providers felt, nor did it provide specific details on the nature of the call between Hansen and providers at the hospital. It did, however, reveal that another official, Public Service Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, a former state senator, left a message with the hospital reiterating the claims of mistreatment and suggesting that “if this doesn’t turn out well there will be a suit.”

In its statement, St. Peter’s said it is standing by its original story, and maintained that its team provided care to the patient in accordance with best practices.

“We stand by our assertion that the involvement of public officials in clinical care is inappropriate; that individuals leveraged their official positions in an attempt to influence clinical care; and that some of the exchanges that took place were threatening or harassing,” the statement reads. “Any efforts to exert pressure on our providers will not result in deviation from widely accepted clinical treatment protocols or our hospital policy.”

St. Peter’s has said it is conducting an internal investigation, which may provide more insight into some of the claims, including that the hospital delayed in delivering a power-of-attorney document naming the patient’s daughter as a medical decision-maker. It also said Wednesday that the hospital continues “to work through the matter related to the Attorney General’s office” and acknowledged “the genuine effort being made by both parties to address the concerns brought forward.”

On its end, the Attorney General’s Office told Special Counsel Abra Belke, the former Senate GOP chief of staff, that it had yet to make a final decision regarding legal action — which the department has used to justify not releasing most of the government documents related to the dispute.

“It is incredibly unfortunate this situation occurred, especially at a time when our care teams are working selflessly and tirelessly to care for an unprecedented number of very ill patients,” the hospital said. “St. Peter’s Health has no other agenda than to provide the very best care for members of our community when they need us.”

Full statement from St. Peter’s:

As shared in our previous statement and consistent with the Special Counsel’s investigative report, St. Peter’s Health maintains that our providers and care team members were threatened and harassed when they refused to administer treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the FDA and the CDC. When public officials became involved, a law enforcement response and a lawsuit were threatened.  In addition, there were phone calls, phone messages and/or social media posts to or about our providers that we believe constitute harassment.

Given how difficult the pandemic has been on healthcare workers, our focus will remain on doing everything we can to support them and avoid issues that take time and energy away from patient care. Our administration is accustomed to addressing concerns brought forward by public agencies and officials, and we prefer to handle these without taking care team members away from the bedside. We continue to work through the matter related to the Attorney General’s office, but have been hesitant to single out any individual in that office or any other public officials that may have engaged our providers or our organization during the care of this patient.  Out of respect for the Office of the Attorney General and the genuine effort being made by both parties to address the concerns brought forward, we made the decision to respond only to the narrow scope of questions we were explicitly asked during the Special Counsel’s investigation, and we did not elaborate on any of the conversations or events that took place during the care of the patient.

We stand by our assertion that the involvement of public officials in clinical care is inappropriate; that individuals leveraged their official positions in an attempt to influence clinical care; and that some of the exchanges that took place were threatening or harassing. Any efforts to exert pressure on our providers will not result in deviation from widely accepted clinical treatment protocols or our hospital policy. Further, we reviewed all medical and legal records related to this patient’s care and verified that our teams provided care in accordance with clinical best practice, hospital policy and patient rights. 

It is incredibly unfortunate this situation occurred, especially at a time when our care teams are working selflessly and tirelessly to care for an unprecedented number of very ill patients. St. Peter’s Health has no other agenda than to provide the very best care for members of our community when they need us.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.

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