As COVID-19 continues to ravage Montana at one of the worst rates in the country, doctors at one hospital there are facing another crisis: alleged intimidation and threats from state officials.
Earlier this month, doctors and staff at St. Peter's Health in the state capital of Helena refused to administer the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin—which, as Reason has reported, is not a safe or effective treatment for the virus—to an elderly COVID patient. The patient's family contacted the Montana Department of Justice, accusing the hospital not merely of violating her right to treatment, but also of withholding legal documents, limiting her text communications, and denying her visitation rights.
That's when things took a turn towards the excessive.
On October 12, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, dispatched a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to the hospital to meet with the patient's family; in a subsequent conference call arranged and attended by Knudsen, three unnamed public officials allegedly "harassed and threatened" hospital staff to have them administer ivermectin.
If true, these allegations are emblematic of Knudsen's willingness to use his office to wage partisan battles against his constituents.
"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," hospital spokesperson Andrea Groom told Reason in a prepared statement. "In addition, they threatened to use their position of power to force our doctors and nurses to provide this care."
Knudsen's office declined to answer specific questions, but in a statement given to Reason, spokesperson Kyler Nerison denied the accusations of harassment and threats. Instead, he insisted that the Department of Justice was focused on "allegations that the hospital mistreated a patient and violated her rights and her family's rights."
The Facebook group Montana Federation of Republican Women also joined the fray, urging members to write to the hospital. In an interview with Montana State News Bureau, the group's president cited the 2015 Montana Right to Try Act to justify the patient's access to ivermectin.
State Sen. Theresa Manzella (R) joined the fight as well. "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," she told The Daily Beast.
Yet the hospital seems to be standing on solid legal ground: Montana law requires patients to be approved by their health care provider to be administered experimental drugs. If a patient does in fact want to be prescribed Ivermectin, they can choose to transfer their care to a doctor who will prescribe it—but they can't tell their current doctors what medications to give them, nor can the attorney general.
Local officials agreed with the hospital: after being contacted by the state trooper Knudsen dispatched, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said there was no evidence of a criminal offense.
At the end of the day, the incident reveals not just the state's antagonistic relationship with its own health care system, but Knudsen's disregard for the limits of his office: a followup story from the Montana State News Bureau included evidence that the hospital fell outside of the attorney general's jurisdiction, and he was not in the right to dispatch a state trooper there at all.
Earlier this year, Knudsen came under fire for intervening in the case of a man who violently assaulted a restaurant employee and threatened him with a concealed weapon that he did not have a permit for; Knudsen took over the case and had two of the charges dropped. In a separate incident, Knudsen audaciously attempted to subpoena the state's entire Supreme Court. Former attorneys described his actions to Montana Free Press as "breathtaking" and "embarrassing" to the legal profession.
In the meantime, as an investigation progresses, COVID isn't going away anytime soon in Montana, and hospital workers continue to be pushed to the brink. "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," Groom, the hospital spokesperson, said.