If nothing has made it clear that we can’t rely on government to fix our problems it’s the house aflame in the largest state department in Montana. The Department of Public Health and Human Services has oversight of the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. The State Hospital is the only state-run psychiatric hospital in Montana. Virtually no patient is at the State Hospital voluntarily; most admissions are involuntary admissions mandated by local courts. The patients are our most vulnerable; seriously mentally ill who have no avenues for community-based psychiatric care. The lack of stabilizing community treatment is largely due to the defunding of our mental health system in 2017 in a showcase showdown between the then governor and the Legislature. That defunding eviscerated the community mental health resources that kept lots of Montanans with mental health issues in their communities out of the state hospital. This choice by state government created a disaster in Montana that we are still reeling from.
The State Hospital is required to meet federal rules in order to obtain and maintain federal support. Those federal dollars come through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services otherwise known as CMS. This is one level of oversight of the state hospital – through CMS. During a recent inspection of the facility, CMS found the facility in immediate jeopardy of losing its federal funding. Immediate jeopardy means CMS found the health and safety of patients are at risk for serious injury, or death, simply by being at the State Hospital. The immediate jeopardy finding occurred back in 2017 too and since then, it appears nothing has changed.
According to the survey, at least four deaths at the hospital in the past year likely could have been prevented by attending to ongoing staff shortages and the lack of attention to basic protocols by staff. Forty percent of staff positions at the state hospital are vacant. Yet Derek Skees, Theresa Manzella and Brad Tschida – the three stooges of the Montana Legislature – want to spend $250,000 in taxpayer dollars on an election integrity investigative committee in a state where election integrity is a non-issue and where Republicans won by over 16 percentage points in the last election. These legislators believe a return to hand-counted paper ballots will remove any chance of election fraud – despite the fact that their “plan” imbeds human error into elections. These legislators have prioritized returning us to voting as it was done when we traveled by wagon train over Montana’s kids and vulnerable adults.
Perhaps the governor, department head Adam Meier, and the Three Stooges should spend the night at the State Hospital to see what everyday Montanans in crisis get to experience. Maybe then, they will prioritize Montanans over personal promotion and ill-conceived pet projects.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney, former mayor of Kalispell and host of the Montana Values Podcast.
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