Lawmakers override veto on state hospital transparency bill
State lawmakers this week voted to override vetoes of two bills aimed at improving care at the Montana State Hospital. A watchdog group says conditions at the hospital aren’t improving.
The first bill will automatically send reports of patient neglect, abuse, injuries and deaths to Disability Rights Montana (DRM), the federally designated patient advocacy group. DRM already had rights under federal law to access records, but only upon request after receiving information about an incident.
Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed the bill, arguing that sending those reports to DRM would violate patient privacy.
DRM Executive Director Bernie Franks-Ongoy says receiving all state hospital reports will allow her staff to get a broader sense of conditions at the hospital. She says detailed information in the reports is private but “If we start to see multiple reports of client neglect, patient neglect or client abuse, we can start giving that information out to the public so that they’re aware of the conditions.”
There were two substantiated neglect and abuse reports at the state hospital, and four patients died between Jan. 1 and April 30, according to state data obtained through a records request.
State Health Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt in an email said the state “cannot determine whether a death is avoidable.”
However, the Montana State Hospital’s death policy states: “If it is determined that the death may have been avoidable, the reviewer will critique the care provided and make recommendations for changes in procedures to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of the same or similar event occurring in the future.”
The state investigated all four deaths, but since investigations aren’t public record, it’s unclear if they were preventable. Franks-Ongoy says she is aware of the recent deaths at the state hospital.
"We are investigating one death that is at the hospital that we have serious concerns about the care that this particular patient had,” Franks-Ongoy said.
She says her preliminary impression is that that death could have been avoided. She hopes that increased access to death records puts more pressure on the state hospital to improve care, but says DRM is ready to take the state to court over patient abuse, neglect and deaths if need be.
Franks-Ongoy also applauded lawmakers for overriding a veto of another bill that will transfer dementia and traumatic brain injury patients out of the state hospital.