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Families sue Gianforte and state over deaths and conditions at Montana State Hospital

Montana State Hospital
Posted at 9:02 AM, Nov 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-03 11:02:55-04

BILLINGS - Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte is facing a new lawsuit filed by several Montana families who say the state failed to protect their loved ones staying at the Montana State Hospital, ultimately resulting in death.

The suit filed this week names Gianforte, the state of Montana, and the Montana Department of Health and Human Services and alleges the state hospital in Warm Springs has been neglected by the Montana Legislature for decades and has been run into disrepair making the facility unsafe for residents. 

It’s an allegation Nina DiMauro knows all too well after her brother Lucio, or "Lu", died in the facility in August of 2021.

Lu was one of five patients who died in a single month at the hospital, which led to stiff federal fines.

In February of that year, investigators found deficiencies at the state hospital that led to patient deaths, and when the agency gave the state until March to improve, it eventually failed to come into compliance.

DiMauro is one of several plaintiffs behind the suit after she says her brother was found heavily medicated.

“It was from that point on that things started to deteriorate,” DiMauro told MTN News in May when the story was first uncovered.

Joined in the lawsuit is the family of Lesley Jungers, who is still a patient at the Montana State Hospital and has been diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia.

In the suit, her father, Lawrence Jochim, says Lesley remained locked in seclusion for 10 days at the facility after the family alleges staff members allowed her to engage in sexual contact with other residents.

The sexual contact does not align with Montana State Hospital policies.

In October of 2021, another resident, David Patzoldt, was admitted to the state hospital from Missoula on a court order suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and a cluster of other health symptoms.

His family is also behind the lawsuit, saying just four months later he died from ulcers, sepsis, Covid pneumonia, and other health conditions because of his stay at the state hospital.

The lawsuit says that because Gianforte is the chief executive officer for the state of Montana, he is responsible for the operation of the state hospital through the direction of DPHHS.

The Montana State Hospital lost $7 million in federal funding in 2022 after it failed to meet basic health and safety standards, even after multiple warnings.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a letter terminating its provider agreement with the hospital in April of last year. The federal agency says the involuntary termination of the agreement was a last resort.

In February of that year, investigators found deficiencies at the state hospital that led to patient deaths, and when the agency gave the state until March to improve, it eventually failed to come into compliance.

DiMauro says she’s preparing to bring a class action lawsuit against the state of Montana and the Montana State Hospital for malpractice.

Plaintiffs say the state of Montana and DPHHS failed to properly staff, train, instruct, monitor, supervise, and evaluate its employees which has allowed a pattern of improper conduct.
In May, those with the governor’s office say Gianforte is encouraged by the work of the state health department to resolve longstanding issues with the Montana State Hospital.

“Governor Gianforte believes conditions at the Montana State Hospital are unacceptable after years of neglect from past administrations, which is why he proposed a $300 million, generational commitment to our state's behavioral health system and the state hospital in his Budget for Montana Families,” a Gianforte spokesperson said in a statement.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services would not comment directly on Lu's case.

"Information regarding any Montana State Hospital patient is not releasable under 53-21-166, MCA, concerning 'treatment of the seriously mentally ill': All information obtained, and records prepared in the course of providing any services under this part to individuals under any provision of this part are confidential and privileged matter and must remain confidential and privileged," an agency spokesperson said in a statement to MTN News.

The lawsuit asks for damages and demands a jury trial.