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State fills requests from hospitals for National Guard help
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State fills requests from hospitals for National Guard help

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As COVID-19 cases surge in Montana, with the unvaccinated driving dramatic increases in demands on hospitals leading at least one facility to ration care and others to consider it, the state is sending 70 National Guard members to help hospitals around the state.

In a press release Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte's office said the 70 Guard members fill the six formal requests it received over the last week. Previously 10 Guard members volunteered to assist Billings Clinic and seven were assigned to help the state laboratory in Helena last week.

The state reported adding 1,181 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and 14 deaths over the last week. More than 1,900 Montanans have died since the start of the pandemic and there were 377 people hospitalized statewide Tuesday. Fifty-two percent of the state's eligible population is fully vaccinated.

On Sept. 15 last week, St. Peter's Health in Helena submitted a formal request for 10 Guard members, Billings Clinic made its second request for 10 additional members and St. James Healthcare in Butte asked for six guard members. All those requests were fully filled, the governor's office said in a press release.

On Sept. 17, St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings asked for 10 Guard members and Missoula County requested 24 members; those requests were also fully filled.

And on Sept. 20, Bozeman Health also asked for 10 Guard members; their request was fully filled as well.

“While these Guardsmen will help ease the heavy burden our frontline health workers face, the best long-term solution to this crisis is for Montanans to talk with their doctor or pharmacist and get vaccinated," Gianforte said in a press release Tuesday.

In the release, he again reiterated the state "will not mandate" vaccines, but said they are safe and life-saving. Earlier this year GOP legislators passed a bill that Gianforte signed banning vaccine mandates, making Montana the only state to enact such a measure.

That bill had a provision allowing long-term care facilities to require vaccination if that became a condition of federal funding. That's likely to happen this month after the Biden administration said it would require employees at those facilities to be vaccinated to receive federal money.

The Biden administration has also said it will direct the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to draft an emergency rule requiring employers with more than 100 workers to have those workers be vaccinated or face weekly testing for COVID-19. That conflicts with Montana's law and the state's Republican attorney general has signed a letter with other GOP attorneys general threatening legal action, but earlier this month a legal expert said if the OSHA rule is enacted it would supersede any state law.

The governor's office said it anticipates more formal requests for Guard resources made by other hospitals and says it has provided hospitals around the state with a COVID-19 response resource guide that has instructions for how to formally request Guard resources.

Gianforte's office also said it's working with Disaster and Emergency Services to secure full reimbursements from FEMA for costs associated with COVID-19 staffing. During a press call last week, Bozeman Health said it had more than 400 openings, which is a factor in driving limitations on hospital capacity.

At a legislative interim meeting last week, state Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier said that reimbursement arrangement has driven up staffing costs.

"Right now, for example, FEMA is reimbursing hospitals at 100% of their costs for surge staffing," Meier told a budget committee, adding that while hospitals have to put up the money, they're fully reimbursed.

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"So where's the incentive to control costs? ... There's this kind of artificial inflation going on in the market and so we're seeing ... senior level nurses, RNs, etcetera, at $300 an hour, which is kind of the market rate, (a) rate which is incredibly high," Meier said. " ... If you're in one of those positions that aren't getting FEMA reimbursement, you're still having to find a way to pay for that and so it's really driving up operational cost. For CNAs, for example, I think are in the $70-an-hour range is what I think I'm seeing in some of the market rates. Normally I think what we would pay a CNA is probably in the $15- to $20-an-hour range."

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