(Daily Montanan) Over the last three months, as the coronavirus has continued to cripple the state, the Montana Nurses Association said it has tried eight times to schedule a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte to address the need for more support for nurses on the front lines.
“We should be at the table; it breaks my heart. We are at such a bad place,” said Vicky Byrd, chief executive officer of the MNA. “It couldn’t be more frustrating. We started reaching out because we just wanted to talk about nurses and COVID. After all, they are the ones that are there 24/7 and watching people die and watching unvaccinated people getting admitted and dying.”
Gianforte’s office did not respond to a question about why the nurses group hasn’t been granted a meeting or how the governor decides who has access and who doesn’t.
At the core of Byrd’s frustration is a recent effort by Gianforte to recruit out-of-state health care workers that seemed to include a spot at the table for every medical association outside of the nurses association.
On November 2, the Republican governor announced the Health Care Workforce Relocation Assistance program, which aims to help cover relocation costs for eligible health care providers to recruit them to serve in Montana communities. Under the program, employers can offer new employees reimbursement of up to $12,500 for moving expenses, plus 35 percent of the total reimbursement amount to payroll tax deductions for qualifying moving and relocation expenses for employees.
A news release from Gianforte featured comments praising the new program by eight different leaders of various medical associations, including the Montana Hospital Association, Billings Clinic, and others, but Byrd said the nurses association was never consulted, even though she said the association and its members are the ones who know nurses best.
“Nurses speak to nursing issues, the governor doesn’t speak to them,” she said.
But Byrd thinks the state should be investing in the nurses already here who have suffered through the pandemic. Montana’s seven-day average for hospitalizations was 378 as of November 9, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker and the state has the worst daily hospitalization rate per 100,000 people in the country, with a rate of 35.
“It was a gut punch for these nurses. A total gut punch. We have got to invest in the nurses already on the ground; we are leaving them behind,” she pleaded. “We can’t go out of state. All the other states are dealing with the same thing. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
To qualify for the program, health care providers must permanently relocate to Montana and remain employed for at least 12 consecutive months.
Byrd said the association also reached out to Adam Meier, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, but heard nothing.
After the program was announced, the nurses association took its frustration to Facebook, publicly noting that it had tried eight times between July 29 and November 3 to schedule a meeting with the governor.
“From legislative committees all the way to the Governor’s office, our work is persistent, we care so deeply about the nurses, the profession, and the experiences our nurse members are facing every day,” the Facebook post read. “Sadly, our latest efforts addressing nurse retention/investment with funding through the American Rescue Plan Act and a meeting with the Governor have fallen on deaf ears.”
The last response she received from the Governor’s Office was on November 4, Byrd said.
At 6:07 p.m., the Governor’s office wrote in an email: “On behalf of Governor Gianforte, thank you for reaching out. Unfortunately, the Governor’s schedule does not permit for a meeting at this time. As the calendar settles, we are happy to reevaluate the request.”
Access to the governor hasn’t been a sure bet for organizations seeking facetime.
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said the governor has always been responsive and willing to meet with her. But she said she is aware of how quickly that dynamic can change.
“I have been very careful to keep an amicable working relationship with him because I do fear being excluded, and it is my job on behalf of our members,” she said.
During the most recent legislative session, Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said she never heard from the governor. When she would call his office, she was instructed to send an email.
“We would email his staff people and never hear anything back. Not even an acknowledgment, which was frustrating. It was a busy session, so that I will cut him some slack. But I have never experienced that with a governor before, and I have been doing this for 28 years,” she said.
Since the session, she said she has not tried to reach out.