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Query of hospital threats finds voicemail by former senator

| November 30, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — An investigation into a complaint that public officials tried to intimidate employees of a Montana hospital into treating a COVID-19 patient with unapproved medication uncovered a voicemail left by a former state senator in which she said she didn't think "senators would be too happy to hear about" the hospital's care of the patient.

Jennifer Fielder, now a member of the Public Service Commission, told the Legislature's special counsel that she left the voicemail with St. Peter's Health on Oct. 11 as a personal matter on behalf of the patient, who she described as a friend. Fielder declined further comment on Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour argued Tuesday that if Fielder was leaving a personal message she wouldn't have identified herself as a senator in the call.

"You don't have a conversation with people in a personal way and then name your public persona and use that," Cohenour said. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Democratic leaders in the Legislature asked for the body's newly created special counsel to investigate after St. Peter's Health reported on Oct. 18 that three public officials harassed hospital staff and "threatened to use their position(s) of power" to force the hospital to provide a COVID-19 patient with medications that are not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to treat the respiratory virus.

"From our view, this report clearly shows a pattern of public officials using their power to intimidate people," by threatening legal and political ramifications, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said Tuesday.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen had acknowledged he intervened in the case, and later said Chief Deputy Attorney General Kristen Hansen brought the issue to him, but he denied intimidating anyone.

In Fielder's voicemail she identified herself as a state senator, and later a former state senator, and said the patient was a Senate staffer. The patient previously served as a temporary state Senate staffer and was not working for the legislature at the time of her hospitalization, according to the special counsel Abra Belke's report, which was released on Monday night.

In the three-minute message, left with the hospital's Risk Management Office, Fielder said the patient was of sound mind and requested treatment with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, but the hospital refused to prescribe the drugs. Ivermectin is used to treat parasites while hydroxychloroquine can be used to prevent malaria or treat lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Fielder said her voicemail was "a record" that should not be erased because "if this doesn't turn out well, there will be a suit."

The patient, who was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 9, died on Oct. 26. She was 82.

Hansen exchanged text messages with an advocate for the patient who reported the hospital had not forwarded to the patient a legal document to give the patient's daughter the right to make medical decisions for her mother if she lost consciousness, the report stated.

The advocate also said the patient was not being allowed to take alternative medications and that family members were not allowed to visit her, even through the glass of the critical care ward, which the advocate said was allowed by hospital policy.

Hansen asked that a Montana Highway Patrol Trooper be dispatched to the hospital, the report stated. The trooper interviewed the patient's sister and daughter and forwarded their statements to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney, who said it was not a criminal matter.

Democrats question the authority under which the Department of Justice sent a trooper to the hospital and asked the special counsel to gather information about the policies that led to the decision. The special counsel referred those questions to Legislative Services and the Legislative Audit Division.

Hansen did speak with some hospital officials when the patient's advocate was talking with providers and put the deputy on speakerphone with them, the report said. There are no government records referring to that call, but hospital attorney Kathleen Abke said Hansen discussed the potential legal ramifications of withholding legal documents and preferred treatment from the patient.

Through mid-October, at least two dozen lawsuits had been filed around the country by people seeking to force hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients with ivermectin, a drug that has been promoted by conservative commentators as a treatment despite a lack of conclusive evidence that it's effective.

The hospital is investigating why it took three days for the power of attorney to be delivered to the patient, the report states.

In a text exchange with Mark Taylor — a lobbyist for the Montana Hospital Association who is also on the board of directors for St. Peter's Health — Knudsen said the patient was being denied her preferred treatment, being denied access to legal counsel, and was being denied visitors and the ability to leave.

"I'm about to send law enforcement in and file unlawful restraint charges," Knudsen wrote in a text, later asking for it to be handled quickly because "my patience is almost gone."

On Oct. 13, St. Peter's Health CEO Wade Johnson held a video call with Knudsen, Taylor and the hospital's chief medical officer, which Knudsen characterized as cordial. Knudsen said the meeting was to ensure that St. Peter's would "cease preventing communication between the patient and her family and deliver the legal documents she needed."

Johnson said he did not feel intimidated during his conversation with Knudsen. The report does not say how Taylor or the hospital's chief medical officer felt about the video call.

Knudsen's office has said it is still investigating the "troubling allegations" of patient mistreatment.