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Montana Legislature to investigate allegations that public officials harassed hospital workers over COVID treatments

Ivermectin at Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply in Columbia Falls, MT, August 31, 2021.
Aaron Bolton
Ivermectin at Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply in Columbia Falls, MT, August 31, 2021.

The Montana State News Bureau broke news that Attorney General Austin Knudsen sent a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to St. Peter’s Health in Helena in mid-October over a complaint from a patient there.

Hospital officials told the news bureau that three public officials threatened and harassed them over their refusal to give the patient Ivermectin, which isn’t federally approved to treat COVID-19.

Knudsen confirmed to the news bureau that his office was investigating a complaint that the hospital wasn’t allowing the woman’s family to contact her. His office has refuted the hospital’s claims.

Since the news broke, Republican leadership in the Legislature approved Democratic lawmakers’ request for a probe into Knudsen’s behavior.

MTPR's Freddy Monares spoke with the Montana State News Bureau’s Holly Michels about the story.

Freddy Monares So bring us up to speed on what all has happened since you broke this story.

Holly Michels We published this story. And since then, we have seen calls for more information because in our initial report, we still had some questions about the elected and public officials involved in this. More specifics about different interactions that the Attorney General's Office had with the hospital, more about what the highway patrol trooper who was dispatched to the hospital.

Monares We know Knudsen is one of three public officials. Has there been any effort to find out who the other two are?

Michels Yeah, so I've seen others report the deputy attorney general Kris Hansen as one of the officials that was involved here and that was an initial information given to me. And I'd been asking since the Friday before our story published for confirmation. For some reason to us, they've never actually confirmed that. The other public official that I've been told by several people directly involved is an elected official, and we've been trying to call that person for, I guess it would be maybe a week and a half now.

Monares Yeah, the Legislature has now agreed to investigate this. What are lawmakers asking to happen?

Michels So it looks like legislators are asking for a lot of similar things that we have been looking at, trying to get a better idea of the attorney general's questions. Their request also cites the deputy attorney general, Kris Hansen. In Montana, generally, those communications are public. You know, the types of emails, phone records, text messages sent by elected officials in their official capacity — those are all public documents.

Monares And what are hospital officials saying about the incident?

Michels So when we first got this tip, it was a Thursday, and I spent Friday trying to talk to as many people I could contact who were involved directly with what happened. And over the weekend and then through Monday, we came back, talked to the hospital a little more and they ended up issuing that pretty strongly worded statement about what happened, saying, you know, "Our health care professionals were threatened. They were harassed. Their medical advice and opinions were second-guessed by people who don't have medical experience." And since then, they've, you know, there was some back and forth after that initial statement where the Attorney General's Office encountered some of what the hospital said. They've said no one was threatened. They said they were only looking at issues of access to the patient, that sort of thing. The hospital's pretty clearly said, "Nope, this is what happened. We stand by our doctors and we don't think that this is a good thing for public officials to be doing."

Monares Yeah. And I feel like you sort of touched on this, but how has Knudsen's office responded to the incident?

Michels They issued a statement on the Monday when we reported this the first time, acknowledging the office's involvement. They've answered some of our questions, but not all of them. We have a pretty substantial outstanding list of requests for things that are typically public documents that we're trying to get access to.

Monares I'm wondering, what does a willingness to investigate this tell you about the Republican Party in the state right now?

Michels I'm always hesitant to guess at how other people, you know, their motivations or their thinking because I feel like I'm not a great guesser, that it's a bad thing to do as a journalist. But you know, I think that we saw a statement from Senate President Mark Blasdel yesterday sort of acknowledging that there's some pretty serious allegations that are being made here and it referenced sort of a lack of clarity in media reports and hospital statements. He was saying, I think, in that statement that it's not entirely clear what's happened yet. So it sounds like they are just seeking clarity from that statement. But yeah, I think I definitely heard from some political watchers that they were a little surprised at Republicans OK'ing this use of the special counsel.

Monares That was Montana State News Bureau's Holly Michels sharing her reporting of a Helena hospital, accusing the state's attorney general of harassing hospital officials over a report that it refused to treat a COVID-19 patient with Ivermectin. Thanks again, Holly.

Michels Thanks, Freddy.

Updated: October 27, 2021 at 3:17 PM MDT
This story has been updated to attribute Montana State News Bureau’s reporting on these allegations, which the Attorney General’s office has refuted.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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