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Montana health officials hire a consulting firm to address state hospital issues

A sign pointing to the entrances of the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, MT.
Montana State Hospital
A sign pointing to the entrances of the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, MT.

State health officials say they have signed a contract with a Helena-based consulting firm to address patient safety issues at the Montana State Hospital. The federal government pulled funding for the hospital this week citing safety problems that resulted in patient deaths.

State health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt says the state has signed a $500,000 contract with Mountain Pacific Quality Health to help address patient safety issues.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in three inspections found that the state hospital failed to address issues related to COVID mitigation and serious falls. The inspections also found that medications were being used as chemical constraints and a male patient severely assaulted a female resident.

Karen Tritz with CMS says that’s why an agreement that would have maintained federal funding for the state hospital while it worked on improving conditions is no longer an option.

Ben Miller is the president of Wellbeing Trust, a foundation that focuses on mental health care.

“From what I can see, CMS doesn’t do what they did in Montana that often.”

Miller says CMS sometimes will work with hospitals for years before pulling funding. He says the fact that the agency did that in just two months here shows how bad things are.

Both the state health department and Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office say the unsafe conditions are due to staffing shortages that have been a problem for years and that it will take time to resolve. The state health department says it plans to eventually reapply for federal funding at the state hospital, but it’s unclear when that could happen.

Staff have told lawmakers during hearings that a hostile work environment fostered by hospital administrators is what’s driving workers to leave. A letter from unions representing hospital workers last month reiterated those concerns.

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy with Disability Rights Montana says she agrees with staff.

“They need to get somebody in there that has the qualifications to run a psychiatric hospital.”

Meanwhile, the state says it is evaluating whether some state hospital patients can be moved to other facilities. But Franks-Ongoy says people wind up at the state hospital because there is no other place to go.

Aaron Bolton is Montana Public Radio's Flathead Valley reporter.