Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

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Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Wednesday confirmed Chief Deputy Attorney General Kristen Hansen was one of the public officials involved in an incident involving St. Peter’s Health in Helena earlier this month.

The hospital last week issued a statement saying “several of our providers and care team members who are working tirelessly at the bedside were harassed and threatened by three public officials.”

Knudsen’s office, which has disputed the hospital’s description of events, last week confirmed the attorney general’s involvement but had previously not answered several questions about Hansen’s participation.

The incident stems from a COVID-19 patient who had requested ivermectin, a drug not approved for treatment of the virus, and what Knudsen said were claims by the family of being cut off access to the patient. The patient’s family contacted the attorney general’s office, which later dispatched a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to the hospital.

“My understanding is that somebody in the family reached out to her,” Knudsen said of Hansen on Wednesday when asked by the Montana State News Bureau. “ ... She’s the one who reached out to me.”

A special counsel for the state Legislature is investigating the incident. The request for the investigation came from Democratic leadership and was approved by Republican leadership. Republicans hold a majority in the Legislature.

In the interview Wednesday, Knudsen said he didn’t threaten or harass anyone, reiterating statements issued by a spokesperson last week.

“I strongly disagree with any characterization that I threatened anybody,” Knudsen, a Republican, said. “That absolutely did not occur. I look forward to this legislative investigation, I think that’ll get borne out. ... I can’t speak for other public officials but I can speak for myself.”

Asked about Knudsen’s statements Wednesday, the hospital pointed to its previous response last week.

“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. In addition, they threatened to use their position of power to force our doctors and nurses to provide this care,” the hospital said Oct. 18.

Knudsen said he got involved because he was concerned about reports he received that the patient was being denied the ability to leave the hospital and that they could not access documents related to end-of-life situations.

The patient, Shirley Herrin, died Tuesday evening. She was involved in Republican politics and a longtime member of the Lewis and Clark Republican Women’s Club, having twice served as its president.

Knudsen said he spoke with the hospital’s chief executive officer and chief medical officer about the patient and said at the time he was satisfied with the response he got from the hospital officials. He called the conversation “cordial” and said he was assured the hospital would look into the issue.

In its statement last week, the hospital said it had acted properly in regards to the patient.

“We have reviewed all medical and legal records related to these incidents, and we have verified that our teams are providing care in accordance with clinical best practice, hospital policy and patient rights. Any allegations or assertions otherwise are unfounded,” the hospital said then.

The hospital is under visitor restrictions because of the pandemic.

Last week the attorney general’s office said it was investigating the incident. On Wednesday, Knudsen said he had no idea how far that had progressed but that it was ongoing.

A special counsel of the state Legislature is also looking into the incident. The Legislature’s special counsel, a position created earlier this year, can examine state government records but cannot subpoena witnesses.

Asked Wednesday about the scope of the investigation, Democratic leaders pointed out this is the first time the position will be used.

“I think we’re still feeling out how it’s going to work, where the contours of her authority are and how responsive (the Department of Justice) will be to our request,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, of Helena, said in a press conference. “That said, it is the best tool available for us to pursue public accountability with the attorney general and the DOJ with a really ... troubling incident that has gotten a lot of attention and we’ve heard a lot of feedback from the community about.”

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