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Wyoming Medical Center plans to turn Mountain View Regional into an east campus, retain facility's employees

Wyoming Medical Center plans to turn Mountain View Regional Hospital into an east campus, and the hospital will look to retain the specialty facility’s more than 200 employees, the CEO said Thursday.

“The healthcare market is constantly changing, even in Casper and Wyoming,” WMC’s Michele Chulick said in an email. “We recognize that we must grow to compete and to meet the needs of our patients. Mountain View Regional Hospital is a beautiful, modern healthcare facility that provides a convenient location to patients on the east side of Casper. It increases the number of inpatient beds, allowing Wyoming Medical Center to care for more patients from Casper and the state of Wyoming.”

The responses mark the first time Chulick or the hospital has answered in detail questions about the acquisition of Mountain View since it was announced earlier this month. The specialty hospital was founded in 2008 by three former WMC neurosurgeons and provides inpatient and outpatient surgery, with a specialty in neurosurgery.

The details of the deal remain unclear; Chulick declined to provide any information about price, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

There’s some history between the two facilities. The neurosurgeons left WMC after a dispute over their desire to have their own operating room team. Mountain View would eventually siphon off enough business that WMC would lose its “sole community provider status” in 2011, which translated to a loss of millions of dollars of federal funds.

Chulick said the deal has been in the works for “several months” and that the two sides signed an agreement on April 10, the day before it was made public. Eric Boley, the president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said he thought the negotiations extended back to when Chulick’s predecessor, Vickie Diamond, was still CEO at WMC. Diamond retired in July.

He ticked off a number of reasons why now might’ve been the right time for Mountain View.

“They’ve gone through a lot of leadership changes over the last several years,” he said. “The tenure of their CEO has been short at best. I think they’ve been struggling financially. All the pieces finally fell (together).”

Chulick said that Mountain View will “remain open and treating patients.”

“Our goal is to continue as many of the current services and current structure of operation we can,” she told the Star-Tribune. “ ... We have formed 19 transition teams, with professionals from both organizations, to help streamline operations on everything from radiology, employee services, IT, communications and much more.”

She said Advantage Orthopedics and Neurosurgery would move to this new east campus, where those physicians would perform surgeries and procedures.

WMC plans to retain all of Mountain View’s physicians and employees, Chulick added, assuming they “meet all WMC conditions, standards and regulatory hiring practices.”

“This means we will be gaining more than 200 employees to the WMC family,” she wrote.

She declined to say whether the acquisition would open new lines of service for patients but said WMC planned on continuing Mountain View’s “extensive outreach program.”

The acquisition leaves only Summit Medical Center as a hospital competitor to WMC in Casper. That facility is essentially across the street from Mountain View. Chulick said the hospital had no plans for further acquisitions “at this time.”

Reached for comment Thursday, a spokeswoman for Summit sent the Star-Tribune a document titled, “Six reasons why you should choose a physician-owned hospital.”

The list “reflects our position on the acquisition of Mountain View Regional by Wyoming Medical Center,” the spokesman, Lori Klatt, said.

“With the acquisition of Mountain View Regional Hospital by Wyoming Medical Center, the patients’ choice of care is now limited to two options: Summit Medical Center and Wyoming Medical Center,” the document states. “(T)his means that except for Summit Medical Center, Wyoming Medical Center has a monopoly on medical costs and choices for health care in the Casper community.”

“Summit offers a choice that includes efficiency and lower costs,” Summit’s medical director, Dr. Joseph Vigneri, said in the statement.

Boley, the hospital association president, said the acquisition could drive costs down in Casper. He said that a significant portion of WMC’s patients are on Medicare or Medicaid, which pays less than commercial insurance. He speculated that by acquiring Mountain View, WMC’s “payer mix” would shift to include more patients with private and commercial insurance.

“Naturally in my mind I would think, if payer mix changes and they’re receiving commercial insurance payments and other payments they haven’t been receiving, I could see where that could drive the cost of health care down,” he said.

Research suggests that’s not always the case. In 2012, a pair of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania looked at several studies on hospital consolidation. One of their key findings was that “hospital consolidation generally results in higher prices.”

“This is true across geographic markets and different data sources,” the researchers wrote. “When hospitals merge in already concentrated markets, the price increase can be dramatic, often exceeding 20 percent.”

Whether that bears out in Casper or if Boley’s speculation is correct remains to be seen. What’s certain is that one of the state’s largest hospitals is set grow even larger.

“We save people’s lives, and we are able to do that by being good financial stewards for the resources we have,” Chulick wrote. “Staying competitive requires long-term planning and an understanding of Natrona County’s healthcare needs far into the future. ... We believe this will benefit patients across the state, streamlining care while connecting them to the full network of WMC specialists and capabilities.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Drummers play during a flag ceremony at the 150th Anniversary of the Fort Laramie Treaty on Saturday. The commemoration of the treaty runs through Tuesday with exhibits, demonstrations and a series of talks on the history. 

University of Wyoming legal clinic takes on defendants with no other options

Donald Clyde Davis was sentenced to life in prison, plus at least 20 more years, when he was 17.

The 53-year-old will have a chance to walk free before he dies, thanks in no small part to a University of Wyoming law school student who was born nearly a decade after Davis began serving his sentence.

In mid-April, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that Davis’s original sentence violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime. A criminal defense attorney who has represented Guantanamo Bay detainees and Army soldiers signed court documents on Davis’ behalf.

But if you ask the career lawyer, Catherine Young did the bulk of the work.

Young, 28, is a third-year law student who leads the University of Wyoming’s Defender Aid Clinic. The clinic provides legal representation for people who can’t afford it otherwise and might not qualify for a public defender.

Defender Aid is composed of five students who practice law under attorney Tom Fleener’s supervision. The students, who receive a class credit for their work, might lack experience — or even a law license — but they argue cases in some of the top courts in the region. Most recently, they helped win a new sentencing hearing for Davis.

“I think it’s the most important thing — that I know — that law students have done in Wyoming,” Fleener said.

The students practice law on Fleener’s license, and he gives a lecture once a week while also serving as the “crazy senior partner,” he said. Fleener said the students work mostly autonomously, while he provides guidance and reviews their work before it is submitted to a court.

Speaking in his office Thursday, Fleener deferred questions about the Davis case to Young on multiple occasions, saying she was far more familiar with the case than he.

“It’s awesome to watch law school students work cases and develop into attorneys,” he said. “It’s awesome to be part of the process.”

Young, who worked as an intern for Casper attorneys Rich Jamieson and John Robinson during the summer of 2016, said working with the independence afforded by the clinic can be intimidating. She said working in the clinic had helped shape her career goals. She thought she wanted to work in appeals advocacy before she began working at the clinic, and the hands-on work confirmed her interest.

“Tom trusts us quite a bit to kind of take ownership of our own cases,” Young said. “We put in a lot of time and effort to make sure we don’t screw up.”

Robbery turned murder

Davis murdered a hitchhiker on Sept. 5, 1982.

He was drinking during the day and into the night of the murder, when he met up with Robert Cotton, according to court documents. The two men picked up the hitchhiker before stopping and pulling the passenger out of the car. Cotton handcuffed the hitchhiker. Davis put a knife to the man’s neck while Cotton rifled through his pockets, retrieving money and a lighter.

The victim “raised up and the knife stuck in his throat,” Davis told investigators who prepared a 1983 sentencing report. At Cotton’s suggestion, Davis then stabbed the knife deeper into the man’s throat.

The hitchhiker’s body was found on Mayoworth Road in Johnson County two days later.

Davis ultimately pleaded guilty to felony murder and aggravated robbery. A judge sentenced him to life behind bars in January 1983.

David had spent three decades in prison when the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Miller V. Alabama. The court ruled that a mandatory prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a minor violated the Eight Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

That decision led the Wyoming Supreme Court to begin looking at prisoners who were sentenced effectively to life in prison for crimes committed as minors, Fleener said. Some of those inmates began appealing their sentences in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a subsequent 2013 change to Wyoming law.

Law students began advocating for Davis in the summer of 2016 when a then Defender aid student argued a motion to correct an illegal sentence in Johnson County District Court. The judge handed down the same sentence Davis had received in 1983: life in prison, followed by 20 to 50 years more. Parole laws mean inmates can sometimes serve less time than they are actually sentenced to. In Davis’s case, however, the sentence meant a life behind bars.

The student appealed the case to Wyoming’s top court in December 2016, argued the case the following spring and graduated. But before the case could be decided, she withdrew from the case.

Really busy, but really lucky

Fleener took over the clinic last fall, and students continued working the case. By November, Young had drafted a supplemental brief, and she and Fleener submitted it to the court.

Young, a Casper native and Natrona County High School graduate, was put to the task of answering eight questions the Wyoming Supreme Court deemed pertinent to the case. After she had completed the draft, with some guidance from the attorney, the two reviewed it, signed it and submitted it to the court.

Following Young’s November brief, the Wyoming Supreme Court handed down a decision: Davis should appear again in district court for a new sentencing hearing.

“I feel really lucky because I really thought this case was over when I came into the clinic,” Young said.

When the court handed down its decision in April, it set precedent for how people convicted of committing murder as juveniles will be sentenced going forward, Fleener said.

The Supreme Court decided that prosecutors must prove that a defendant who committed murder as a juvenile is irreparably corrupt beyond a reasonable doubt if he or she is to be sentenced to an effective life imprisonment, Young said.

Defense attorneys will also be allowed to use evidence that came into existence after the original sentence was handed down, Young said. A defendant looking for a new sentence will then be able to use their prison record to prove they can be or have been rehabilitated.

Young will graduate May 12 and a week later will make oral arguments in a federal appeals case. She will then spend the next year as a clerk for the Wyoming Supreme Court. She’s got a vacation planned, and a bar exam to pass, too. But she’s not worried.

“I’ve had a really busy year,” Young said. “So I don’t really think studying for the bar exam could be too much worse.”

Casper police shooting was suicide by cop, prosecutor concludes

A Casper man who died after being shot by police in February confronted officers with the intention of ending his life, Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen concluded.

Blonigen described his findings in a March 21 letter stating he would not prosecute the Casper police officers. The letter was sent to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, which investigated the shooting. The letter was also provided to Casper police Chief Keith McPheeters and defense attorney Don Fuller, who represented the officers.

Douglas Oneyear, 36, was carrying a sword when officers shot him shortly before midnight Feb. 25 on 15th Street near the east Casper apartment where he lived with his mother. Oneyear died at the scene after two bullets lodged in his spine, McPheeters said at an April 19 news conference.

Prosecutors cleared both officers involved in the shooting and police released dashcam video showing the two officers shooting at Oneyear.

Oneyear’s family attorney said police could have resolved the situation without killing him. In an April 20 statement, Todd Hambrick wrote that the sword was a movie replica with a rounded tip and a dull edge. Officers could have pepper sprayed, tased or tackled Oneyear instead, Hambrick wrote.

In the March 21 letter, which Blonigen provided Tuesday in response to a Star-Tribune request, the county’s top prosecutor wrote that officers had no choice but to shoot Oneyear.

“It is highly unlikely, if not impossible to believe less than lethal force could have been used in this situation. Moreover, there was not time to deploy less than lethal options and then switch back to a firearm if they proved ineffective,” Blonigen stated. “Also, Oneyear was so close with his weapon at that time that immediate action had to be taken to protect the officers’ lives.”

Hambrick said Friday that Blonigen’s conclusion was erroneous. He acknowledged Oneyear had mental health issues but said the circumstances did not point to a suicide by cop.

“It’s kind of just a rubber-stamping of what the cops wanted,” Hambrick said, in reference to Blonigen’s letter. “This happened so fast for these guys that they didn’t know what to do. So they shot and killed him.”

Hambrick said he had not been contacted by the district attorney and did not see the letter until a Star-Tribune reporter provided it to him Friday while seeking comment for this story.

Although two officers—Jonathan Schlager and Cody Meyers—shot at Oneyear, only Schlager hit Oneyear. The three .40-caliber rounds Schlager fired found Oneyear’s abdomen, chest and neck, Blonigen wrote. Meyers likewise fired his gun three times but did not hit Oneyear.

Both officers were placed on leave while the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation examined the shooting. They had been back on full duty for weeks at the time of the April 19 news conference.

In the April news conference, McPheeters referred to a need for greater mental health treatment options, but declined to say if Oneyear had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Hambrick said April 23 Oneyear had suffered from a mental disability, but could not say more about the nature of the condition.

In the letter, Blonigen wrote that Oneyear had suffered from mental illness and been hospitalized for such at least 14 times. The prosecutor did not specify what diagnoses Oneyear had received, but did write that “Oneyear had a history of suicidal behavior exacerbated by substance abuse issues.” Oneyear was not taking “proper medication,” Blonigen wrote. He stated that Oneyear was historically volatile and suicidal when he did not take medication.

“Officers’ descriptions of Oneyear are consistent with a suicide by cop situation,” Blonigen wrote. “...It is this writer’s opinion that Douglas Oneyear deliberately induced a confrontation with the police for the express purpose of ending his life.”

Blonigen stated that Oneyear’s death came about because of long-term mental illness and substance abuse and police had no choice but to shoot the man.

Hambrick, who intends to bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the Oneyear family, said Oneyear’s actions were not consistent with a person who had chosen to die at a police officer’s hands. He said in such situations, people will rush at police, point guns at cops or — if they are carrying swords — swing them at officers. Oneyear did not take those actions.

“When have you seen (a suicide by cop video) when a guy’s just walking down the street?” Hambrick asked, rhetorically.

Fuller, who represented the officers for the duration of DCI and Internal Affairs investigations, said he disagreed with Hambrick’s decision to bring the suit.

“It was a tragedy,” Fuller said. “I don’t think (Oneyear) left the officers any choice.”

McPheeters did not immediately respond to a Friday afternoon message requesting comment. Blonigen was not in the office Friday afternoon and could not be reached for further comment.