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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Dems seek investigation of AG's possible 'abuse of power'

St. Peter's Health in Helena, MT
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
St. Peter's Health in Helena, MT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Democratic leaders in the Montana Legislature are asking for an investigation into whether the attorney general abused his power by sending a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to a Helena hospital over a complaint from the family of a COVID-19 patient.

St. Peter's Health said Monday that three public officials threatened to use their positions to force doctors and nurses to treat the patient with ivermectin, a drug used for parasites that is not federally approved for the respiratory disease, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen's office acknowledged getting involved, but has said it was to investigate a report that the woman's family was not allowed to contact her and that legal documents were not being delivered. The hospital's statement said otherwise.

"These officials have no medical training or experience, yet they were insisting our providers give treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the" Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital spokesperson Andrea Groom said.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott wrote to Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt on Thursday and asked them to appoint a special counsel to investigate Knudsen's actions and those of any other public officials who involved themselves in the complaint against the hospital.

Knudsen's office sent a trooper to the hospital to take statements from the family of the woman in her 80s, and Knudsen later contacted a hospital board member who set up a teleconference with hospital officials, said Kyler Nerison, a spokesperson for Knudsen.

Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher received the trooper's report and said he found no criminal offense on the part of the hospital that needed investigating.

The patrol's involvement raised jurisdictional issues. Helena police are usually called for security issues at the hospital.

"As chief law enforcement officer of the state, the Attorney General holds an office of incredible authority and public trust," Cohenour and Abbott wrote. "Accordingly, Montanans expect that whoever holds that office will conduct themselves with impeccable judgement and impartiality."

The Montana State News Bureau story "raises serious questions if Attorney General Knudsen can meet those standards and whether he is abusing the powers of his office to further his personal agenda," the letter continues.

Blasdel and Galt wrote back on Friday, saying Abra Belke, the special counsel, would contact Cohenour and Abbott for additional information about the purpose, scope and method of the requested inquiry.

On Wednesday, Nerison said the Department of Justice has jurisdiction to investigate any complaints of patient abuse and neglect, pointing to the authority of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. The unit has four investigators, according to a federal report of its 2019 investigations.

When the Montana State News Bureau asked Nerison why the department didn't send a member of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit to investigate, Nerison said: "It's literally the same agency."

However, federal funding for the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit is conditional upon it being "a single, identifiable entity in its own continuous space within the office of the state Attorney General."

The Montana Highway Patrol's jurisdiction, under state law, involves offenses on highways, rest areas and state highway properties adjacent to the highway or involving motor vehicles. St. Peter's Health is not adjacent to a highway.

When asked about the situation on Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte told the Montana State News Bureau that he supported health care workers, but did not address Knudsen's involvement.

"I don't have the details on what happened there, but I stand with our health care workers," Gianforte said. "We need to support them so we can get through this together."

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