At least three high-ranking public officials in Montana tried to pressure a hospital to allow a woman hospitalized with COVID-19 to access drugs that have not been authorized for treatment of the virus—and even “threatened” doctors and dispatched a state trooper, according to the hospital.
“Last week, several of our providers and care team members who are working tirelessly at the bedside were harassed and threatened by three public officials,” Andrea Groom, spokesperson for the Helena-based St. Peter’s Health, told The Daily Beast in a statement Tuesday. “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 FDA and the CDC.”
According to the Independent Record, a patient in her 80s had requested ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug touted in right-wing circles as a miracle cure for COVID-19.
Groom said Tuesday that the officials “threatened to use their position of power to force our doctors and nurses to provide this care.” The conversations had been “deeply troubling” to hospital staff and doctors “because they were threatened and their clinical judgment was called into question by these individuals,” she said.
The public officials were not named by Groom, but the Independent Record reported that Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office had acknowledged having a conference call with hospital executives last week.
Republican state Sen. Theresa Manzella also said she reached out to the hospital last week using an online form but said she had not threatened anyone.
“If someone is at death’s door and they’re circling the drain, why wouldn’t you allow them their wishes?” Manzella told The Daily Beast, insisting that hospitals were allowed to prescribe ivermectin but weren’t giving it out. “If I as an adult of sound mind want to take responsibility for my own healthcare if I get this terrible virus, I think I should have that opportunity as a free American adult.”
A spokesman for the state Justice Department, Kyler Nerison, told The Daily Beast in an email that a family had contacted the Montana Attorney General’s Office, alleging that St. Peter’s Hospital was “violating their relative’s rights.”
Nerison said the family had cited examples that included the hospital refusing to allow her to receive prescribed medications, failing to deliver legal documents, not allowing the family to visit the patient, “and at one point, even cutting off text message communication between them and their family member.”
According to Nerison, the patient’s family sought assistance from Knudsen’s office and a trooper was dispatched to speak with the family at the hospital.
When asked why a trooper was called in, Nerison said: “Because the family asked for assistance from the Department of Justice.” He said it’s the only case of alleged “ongoing mistreatment of a patient” the office had directly received.
Following the trooper’s dispatch, the Justice Department initiated an investigation into the “very troubling allegations” made by the patient’s family, Nerison said.
Knudsen then spoke with a board member who set up a conference call with hospital executives who assured Knudsen that the hospital would no longer bar communication between the patient and her family and would deliver the legal documents she needed, Nerison said.
“No one was threatened or had their clinical judgment questioned while the Department of Justice was trying to get to the bottom of the serious allegations that the hospital was mistreating a patient and violating her rights and her family’s rights,” Nerison wrote. He added that the investigation is ongoing.
In her email Tuesday, Groom did not address the family’s allegations about text communications or legal papers being withheld. She maintained that after reviewing medical and legal records in connection with the incidents, hospital staff were “providing care in accordance with clinical best practice, hospital policy and patient rights.”
“Any allegations or assertions otherwise are unfounded,” she wrote. “Despite occasional requests by patients or family members to use alternative therapies or medications like Ivermectin that are not authorized or clinically approved to treat COVID-19, St. Peter's Health will continue to follow clinical protocols that have been developed by medical experts and are consistent with FDA and CDC guidelines and recommendations.”
Last week, Heidi Roedel, president of the Flathead County Republican Women, identified Shirley Herrin as a patient at the hospital embroiled in a firestorm to get alternative treatments for COVID-19. She urged members of the Facebook group “Montana Federation of Republican Women” to contact the hospital.
She said Herrin was in St. Peter’s and asked members to submit an online form through the hospital’s website requesting that it “stop blocking the use of readily available, affordable life-saving meds that are prescribed to her and have proven effective in many other cases,” namely ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which doctors at the hospital had refused to give her.
Roedel did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Manzella, who replied to the post, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that she had received calls from several Montanans expressing concerns about getting ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. She said she submitted comments to the hospital after encountering a post that appeared on the Facebook page of Public Service Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, a former Republican state senator, that alleged St. Peter’s was “killing Shirley Herrin.”
“When this came up with Shirley I wasn’t surprised by the allegation that the hospital wasn’t honoring her request,” Manzella said. “My comments were fairly generic in my opinion, I asked why they weren’t honoring Shirley’s request for the hydroxychloroquine and the ivermectin and I asked them to reconcile their hospital protocol with the Montana Constitution’s protection of an individual’s human dignity, self determination and the right to try.”
“I certainly don’t consider any of that a threat,” she added.
In her email Tuesday, Groom declined to say whether Manzella was one the officials to threaten the hospital, but she said the hospital wouldn’t succumb to pressure from anyone to diverge from protocols on treatment of the virus.
“Any efforts to exert pressure on our providers, including by public officials, will not result in deviation from widely accepted clinical treatment protocols or our hospital policy. Furthermore, harassing our care teams places an additional burden of stress on these individuals, diverting their time and focus away from caring for these critically ill patients.”
However, Nerison accused the hospital and local publications of trying to divert attention away from allegations of mistreatment.
“The Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation does not involve any specific medical treatment, nor did anyone at our agency give any directive to hospital staff regarding any specific medical treatment,” he wrote. “Our concern was – and the focus of our investigation continues to be – allegations that the hospital mistreated a patient and violated her rights and her family’s rights.”
Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher told the Independent Record that after he was contacted by the trooper who made the hospital call, he didn’t find a criminal offense that required investigation.
Montana was dealt a staggering blow in reported coronavirus cases requiring hospital care, hitting an all-time high of 510 patients hospitalized on Wednesday.
In August, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services alerted county officials and medical providers in a memo about a “rapid increase” of ivermectin prescriptions and “severe illness” associated with its use to prevent to treat COVID-19.