Early praise for state hospital’s new administrator, but employees say more work needs to be done

Carter Anderson took over as the interim administrator of the hospital on May 9

By: - June 2, 2022 6:15 pm

Montana State Hospital. Credit Keith Schubert

WARM SPRINGS — Morale is up at the Montana State Hospital.

Employees who spoke with the Daily Montanan gave good marks to the hospital’s new interim administrator Carter Anderson, who took over the post from Kyle Fouts on May 9 after months of complaints from employees and a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid investigation that found the hospital was not in compliance with federal standards.

“It was like a huge energy shift. You walked in there previously, and you felt like you were stepping on eggshells everywhere you went, whereas now you go in there and you can just feel like there’s hope,” Savannah Walker, the hospital’s cosmetologist, said in an interview with the Daily Montanan.

Tom Glovan, vice president of the hospital workers union, echoed Walker’s message.

“We have a new CEO. That’s lightened morale quite a bit. He seems to be making some progress. A little bit as to be expected, not fast, but making some progress. He’s very clinical-minded, he’s about the patients, and that’s really good to hear and good to see,” he said.

Employees gathered for a town hall meeting Wednesday evening for the first time since April when staff sent a letter to hospital and state leaders outlining concerns. About 25 hospital employees showed up to air their grievances, fewer than the April meeting, which about 70 workers attended.

Still, three employees who spoke with the Daily Montanan said more needs to be done. Their top concerns include the hospital’s continued reliance on traveling nurses, problematic hiring practices, and management by Chief Operating Officer Christopher St. Jean.

“There’s still lots of change that needs to happen,” said Debbie Mehring, co-president of the hospital’s LPN Union and behavioral healthcare planner at the hospital.

The Montana State Hospital, located in Warm Springs, is the state’s psychiatric hospital and serves as the last resort for Montanans struggling with mental illness. As of Wednesday, 214 patients were being served by the hospital.

In early April, the hospital, which is $7 million over budget for the current fiscal year, lost its federal funding after a federal investigation found it failed to prevent patient falls and did not have an adequate COVID-19 infection plan in place — contributing to the deaths of four patients in five months.

Earlier this month, Fouts was removed as administrator after hospital employees lobbed several allegations at him, including nepotism in hiring and creating a hostile work environment. Fouts never publicly responded to the allegations.

“Putting Carter where he is, as our CEO, has been a very positive thing to the hospital; our morale is up, we see more people in the rotunda eating lunch together, there’s more laughter in the hospital,” Mehring said. She added that she hopes Anderson, an internal agency hire, can return the hospital to what it was before Fouts took over.

And while Fouts may be gone, Mehring said St. Jean is still trying to run the hospital like the former administrator did, which is hampering the facility’s ability make further progress.

Glovan agreed and said if he could change one thing overnight to improve the hospital, it would be removing St. Jean: “Personally … that would be the biggest step in the right direction. In my opinion, he doesn’t care.”

Specifically, Walker said St. Jean fails to communicate and respect staff properly.

“What he does is talk in circles around whatever the concerns are, and he tries to kind of sweep them under the rug and rather address them,” she said. “If you’re going to be that positive manager, you need to step in, and you need to lead. You can’t just bicker and bite …”

While St. Jean did not respond to a voicemail left late Wednesday afternoon, DPHHS Chief of Staff Charlie Brereton responded to employee complaints through a department spokesperson.

“The department does not comment or speculate on unsubstantiated claims made against hard working public servants. Furthermore, we do not give consideration to this style of tabloid journalism or blogging rooted in water cooler gossip. DPHHS has a formal process for employees to share concerns with HR. We handle matters through that process, not through blogs or whisper campaigns,” Brereton said via email.

And other improper hiring practices remain, Mehring said. In the April letter, employees cited “underqualified hiring, work environment for friends, family and former co-workers of Kyle Fouts.”

To improve things, Walker and Mehring agreed the hospital should implement a hiring board that could be made up of people who have worked in the position being recruited, a supervisor and an HR representative.

“You need people who know the job to hire for the job,” Walker said.

And staffing remains an issue as the hospital still relies heavily on traveling nurses. Between 2019 and 2020, 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, traveling nurses billed for 16,000 hours in that month compared to just 2,000 in January 2021, a 700 percent increase, according to state data.

Hope Hollingsworth, a former employee at the hospital, said in a text that she would consider returning if she saw a decrease in certain traveling staff. “I love that hospital, and I love my staff friends, but would feel safer returning once tech positions are again staffed by locals,” she said in a text message to the Daily Montanan.

Glovan and Mehring said they hoped the changes at the hospital would help recruit more full-time workers.

“We take better care of patients when we have actual workers that come to work every day and learn the job,” Glovan said. “Our morale is coming up a little bit; the more permanent staff we get, the more it’ll go up.”

Mehring agreed and said potential applicants to the hospital should know things are changing.

“We definitely need to get the word out there that there is change, there is a morale uplift. And that we would like to see more state employees people need to apply. It really is a different environment,” she said.

Shortly after the hospital lost its federal funding, DPHHS began work with a private New York-based consulting firm. The firm, which inked a $2.2 million contract with the state, will review operations at the state hospital and provide recommendations to the state.

Part of the firm’s of work so far is conducting a climate and culture survey at hospitals around the state, including the Montana State Hospital — a move Walker praised.

“Nobody’s asked us in three years … How are you doing? How’s the situation? Where can we help you? And I think just that alone has skyrocketed us,” she said.

At the same time, Mehring said there are still fears of retaliation in the air left over from the previous administrator. “Right now, we’re only at 20 percent of the people at Warm Springs that have filled out the surveys because they are scared,” she said.

Update: The story has been updated to include a response from the Department of Public Health and Human Services. And to accurately reflect Hope Hollingsworth’s position on traveling nurses.

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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 .