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Montana psych hospital loses payments after deaths, assault

April 11, 2022 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Federal officials say they’ll no longer pay for services at Montana’s state psychiatric hospital following staffing shortages and other problems that were blamed in patient deaths and a violent assault last month involving unsupervised patients.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services notified Montana State Hospital administrator Kyle Fouts that after Tuesday it will end Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for all new patients admitted to the facility in Warm Springs. Payments for services to patients admitted prior to Tuesday will continue for 30 days.

Federal officials said in a Friday letter to Fouts that the facility repeatedly put patients in jeopardy and failed to correct problems, even after being notified the hospital was at risk of losing funding.

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The hospital is reimbursed on average $7 million annually through Medicaid and Medicare, out of about $47 million annually appropriated to the facility by the Legislature, state officials said.

Four patients died from October through February — three because of COVID-19 and another after frequent falls.

Another patient died in August 2021 after staff ignored her complaints that she couldn’t catch her breath. Federal officials found the hospital did not properly investigate her death, and later notified the state that it was at risk of losing federal payments.

Federal investigators returned last month following an assault that left a female patient with severe injuries. In Friday’s letter, they faulted the state over the assault for not protecting patients from abuse. They also said said previously identified problems still had not been fixed.

The move to end reimbursements was first reported by the Montana State News Bureau.

The hospital overseen by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services treats adults with serious mental illness and is located in a town of about 600 people about 23 miles (37 kilometers) northwest of Butte. It had about 142 patients as of early April.

Health department Director Adam Meier said in response to the loss of funding that the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte has brought in outside experts to help address the issues raised by federal officials. But he added “there are no quick fixes” for the hospital’s problems.

State officials recently reported the hospital was more than $7 million over budget, largely because it’s relying on contract workers to fill staffing shortages.

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“It took many years for MSH (Montana State Hospital) to get to this point, and it’s going to take significant time to truly fix the problem,” Meier said.

No patients will be relocated due to the loss of federal funds, health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said. He added that the agency does not expect disruptions to patient care and the state will reapply in the future to receive federal money.

But patients and their family members were alarmed by the federal move, said Bernie Franks-Ongoy, Executive Director of Disability Rights Montana, an advocacy group. They’re worried the state is not doing enough to improve conditions at the hospital, she said.

“You need to do more than talk about these contractors coming in to help. That’s not helping us today, and that didn’t help a couple weeks ago when that male patient assaulted the female patient,” Franks-Ongoy said.

Democratic lawmakers said Gianforte’s administration was slow to respond to the crisis at the hospital and the deaths that occurred there were preventable.

“The costs of that inaction are hitting home, and it’s the most vulnerable Montanans who will bear the worst of those burdens,” state Rep. Sara Novack, a Democrat from Anaconda said in a statement.