State hospital employees submit complaints and solutions to Gov. Greg Gianforte

More than 70 state hospital employees met on March 28

By: - April 14, 2022 1:35 pm

Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0).

More than 70 Montana State Hospital employees sent a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office on Tuesday outlining current problems at the hospital and solutions to get the hospital back on track.

Employees outlined seven overarching issues at Warm Springs psychiatric hospital: pay, working conditions, staffing, morale, management, leadership training and absence of essential job training.

I’ve gone to the Governor’s Office and talked to him and have talked to (Adam) Meier but didn’t get any indication that it was going to get fixed in the way that the employees were suggesting or that we were going to be full partners,” said Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, referring to Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier.

The letter was the result of a March 28 meeting attended by more than 70 hospital employees.

“We started out with hopelessness and anxiety … in the end, we left with a feeling that we were making some headway and that we weren’t just changing, but that we were working toward positive change for employees and patients,” Curtis said.

Brooke Stroyke, spokesperson for Gov. Gianforte, said no one from the Governor’s Office was invited to the meeting.

“The concerns expressed by MSH employees reinforce the longstanding need for reform at the hospital. Rather than continuing the long-running, decade-long practice of kicking the can down the road, current DPHHS leadership is undertaking vital reforms while ensuring continuity of care. As for specifics on reforms that may be implemented, I’d refer you to DPHHS, to whom the letter was also addressed,” Stroyke said in an emailed statement.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services did not respond to an email with questions about the letter and complaints lodged against hospital administrator Kyle Fouts.

The Department has contracted with Mountain-Pacific Quality Health and the New York-based management consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal to conduct reviews of the state hospital and other state-run health facilities.

In response to earlier questions, DPHHS noted the problems at the hospital have been unaddressed for far too long: “Simply put, there are no quick fixes for what we are currently facing. As Director Meier has stated before, we must approach MSH comprehensively, strategically, and in a data-informed manner.”

The state hospital has been heavily scrutinized for failing to comply with federal standards, leading to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announcement last Friday that the hospital would no longer receive federal funding. According to the state, the Legislature appropriates about $47 million per year to fund MSH, and the state is reimbursed an average of $7 million a year through Medicaid and Medicare. The loss of federal funds could be a significant blow to the hospital, which is already $7 million over budget for the current fiscal year.

The hospital chronically struggles with staff retention and recruitment, and employees have continuously sounded alarms about patient safety, mismanagement and poor working conditions during recent legislative hearings. One patient, who spoke with the Daily Montanan, said she was sexually assaulted by other patients while staying at the hospital.

In regards to the allegations by the patient, DPHHS spokesperson Ebelt earlier said: “Our commitment to both serving the patients at Montana State Hospital now and reforming the facility for future generations has never been stronger.”

Some of the most alarming allegations raised in the letter include:

  • Employees getting hurt
  • Verbal abuse from management
  • Patient care neglected due to understaffing/overworking
  • Told “not to worry about mental health” of patients
  • Instances of patient threats not being taken seriously by management
  • Intimidation by management
  • Hospital administrator frequently yells at staff
  • Fear of losing state pension and benefits
  • Underqualified hiring, work environment for friends, family and former co-workers of Kyle Fouts

When reached by phone, Fouts declined to comment on the letter and directed questions to DPHHS spokesperson Ebelt, who did not respond to emailed questions.

In the letter, hospital staff provided 19 solutions for the hospital’s problems ranging from big-scale fixes like changing management personnel to more ground-level things like awards and raffles to boost employee morale.

Employee union president at the hospital Jack Griswold said the problems can be traced to the hospital’s current administrator, Fouts.

“In my opinion, the administration needs to change. Before the current administration, people wanted to work there, but now they can’t find people,” Griswold said. “Basically empty promises and lies to the staff to let them hear what they want and then the administration goes in the totally opposite direction. When asked to put their empty promises on paper and in writing, they say they will, but never do.”

And his point is illustrated by the hospital’s reliance on traveling workers rather than full-time employees. The number of full-time staff plummeted from 450 in 2019 to less than 350 by the end of 2021. And by December of 2021, contracted nurse assistants were billed for 16,000 hours in that month compared to just 2,000 in January 2021, a 700 percent increase, according to DPHHS data. 

Griswold said he had little faith in the powers that exist even above Fouts.

“At the end of the day, what has Gianforte ever said about Warm Springs? The only thing that he has done is blame Steve Bullock’s admin, so if you are blaming him for hiring Kyle, what are you doing to fix it?” Griswold said.

MSH TOWNHALL summary all comments FINAL

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .