[UPDATED on March 13]
BUTTE, Mont. — Jennifer Mitchell remembered getting a call nearly two years ago that her 69-year-old husband, Bill, had crashed his car and had been committed to the Montana State Hospital, the state-run psychiatric hospital for adults about 20 miles from their home in Butte.
Physicians thought Bill Mitchell had dementia and could be a danger to himself or others, according to medical records. But once he was admitted, his wife really began to worry. She couldn’t visit him because of covid-19 restrictions, and she couldn’t get details about the care or the medicine he was receiving.
“I tried to get an idea of what he was taking, not taking. I could not get answers,” Jennifer said.
When Bill was discharged after 60 days, Jennifer discovered he had been taken off some of his congestive heart failure medications. A month later, he went into cardiac arrest and was moved to hospice care. He died on Aug. 4, 2021, six days after his 70th birthday.
The psychiatric hospital in southwestern Montana has been under scrutiny since the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services decertified it in April 2022 following investigations into patient deaths and assaults. Federal officials found in the investigations that the hospital had failed to meet Medicare’s “basic health and safety requirements.”
Mitchell said that she was infuriated by the lack of transparency around her husband’s care and that she hoped decertification would force a change for the better. But it’s had the opposite effect. When federal oversight and funding of the Montana State Hospital was removed, so too was the ability of the public to learn details surrounding patient deaths and injuries.
Between April’s decertification and the end of December, five Montana State Hospital patients have experienced severe injuries requiring immediate medical care or hospitalization, and there have been eight substantiated abuse and neglect reports, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson Jon Ebelt said.
Six patients died in that period, though Ebelt declined to say how many deaths were investigated or if any deaths were deemed preventable.
The circumstances surrounding all those incidents are not publicly known. That’s because, unlike federal investigations, state-level investigations are not public record.
The state health department denied a public records request for all investigations into Montana State Hospital patient deaths, injuries, and assaults since losing federal certification. Ebelt cited a Montana law that says any records about providing treatment to the seriously mentally ill are confidential and privileged.
States vary widely in what information about abuse and neglect at state-run medical facilities is made public, said David Hutt, deputy executive director for legal services for the National Disability Rights Network.
Hutt noted that the lack of transparency at the Montana State Hospital is unique because it lost federal certification and oversight, which is extremely rare.
State-hired contractors have produced public reports highlighting improvements at the Montana State Hospital, such as a reduction in falls among geriatric patients. But those reports don’t disclose information related to patient deaths, severe injuries, or substantiated abuse and neglect cases, which had led to decertification in the first place.
The lack of information frustrates some lawmakers as they consider state health officials’ and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s request for a $300 million appropriation to overhaul the state’s mental health system and a nearly $20 million request for capital improvements and CMS recertification efforts at the state hospital.
“We’ve stabilized MSH since that decertification with a change in leadership and with no significant increase in deaths, serious injuries, or substantiated abuse or neglect allegations,” state health department Director Charlie Brereton told state senators during his recent confirmation hearing.
Brereton, who declined to be interviewed for this article, did not mention at his hearing whether there had been more recent patient injuries and deaths, or substantiated reports of abuse and neglect.
State Democratic Rep. Mary Caferro, who serves on committees considering funding requests and other legislation to reform the state hospital, likened the current level of oversight at the state hospital to the fox watching the henhouse.
“The legislature, when we have good information, thorough information, we make better policy that’s in the best interest of the people we represent,” Caferro said.
Mental health experts agree with Caferro.
“We should know the answers to whether people in the hospital are safe,” said Ben Miller, a clinical psychologist and former president of Well Being Trust, a national foundation focused on mental health care.
A bill that passed through the Montana Senate and is before the House would automatically send all abuse and neglect reports at the state hospital to Disability Rights Montana within five days of an incident. The nonprofit is the federally designated advocacy and watchdog organization for people with disabilities in the state. It recently released a report detailing how some patients were discharged to homeless shelters.
Bernie Franks-Ongoy, the organization’s executive director, said that Disability Rights Montana hopes to be able to share general information from the reports with lawmakers and the public, but noted that state law significantly limits what can be made public. Caferro said she’ll seek to amend the bill to make redacted versions of the reports available to lawmakers and the public.
The Montana Mental Disabilities Board of Visitors also has regular access to the facility and patient records, but its last inspection of the state hospital was in 2019 and the next inspection isn’t expected until next year.
Some lawmakers call the oversight adequate.
“I don’t worry so much about the administration at the hospital hiding anything because they really do have the light shown on them constantly with DRM and the Board of Visitors,” said Republican Rep. Bob Keenan, who chairs the committee considering funding requests for the state hospital and the state’s mental health system.
Keenan and Gianforte blame the current conditions at the facility and loss of CMS certification at the state hospital on prior Democratic administrations. Federal officials noted serious deficiencies at the Montana State Hospital in 2017, but federal officials later deemed those issues resolved.
If lawmakers approve the mental health funding requests, the administration plans to open two lower-level mental health facilities in the coming years to reduce demand at the state hospital. However, the hospital would remain a key fixture of Montana’s mental health system, according to state health officials. Mental health advocates and many lawmakers agree the state hospital should be saved.
Jennifer Mitchell, the woman whose husband died shortly after his discharge from the state hospital, thinks the hospital is beyond repair and worries more patients will die at the facility. She reflected on how hospital officials frequently changed her husband’s medication in response to his depression and refusal to eat, and said she believes her husband would still be alive today if he hadn’t been committed there.
“There were just so many little mistakes or little things that could have been different, and it would have been a totally different outcome,” she said.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Montana Public Radio, NPR and KHN.
This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
[Correction: This article was revised at 3 p.m. PT on March 13, 2022, to correct the date of Bill Mitchell’s death.]