Benefis Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program Wins Innovation Award

The Benefis Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program team has been recognized with the Montana Hospital Association's top honor for innovation in healthcare. 

The Innovation in Healthcare Award recognizes the role innovation plays in maintaining quality and advancing healthcare. Entries were judged on the quality of the project, how it fits into the organization's vision, how effective the project is, its benefit to the community, and its applicability to other healthcare systems.

The Benefis Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program was the first in Montana to tackle the long-term impacts of this new disease. 

The MHA presented the award to Benefis during the recent Montana Healthcare Conference in Helena. MHA is the principal advocate for the interests of the more than 80 members working to improve the health of the communities they serve. 

“Meeting today’s healthcare challenges requires innovative approaches that will propel our communities forward. We’re proud to salute Benefis Health System for their innovative efforts toward treating long COVID,” said Rich Rasmussen, MHA CEO. “We’re thrilled to recognize and encourage healthcare innovation that improves care and patient outcomes.”

In one week early in the pandemic, Jason Kjono, a pulmonology physician assistant, had 50 or 60 referrals marked “COVID, please see.” He recognized this was just the first of what would be waves of long COVID patients in need of a multidisciplinary approach and expertise to be successful.

The Benefis program brings together a team with a broad range of specialties, including primary care, pulmonary, cardiology, ear, nose, and throat, neurology, infectious disease, gastroenterology, physical and occupational therapy, speech language pathology, mental health, and pharmacy.

Launched only a year after Benefis admitted its first COVID-19 patient, the program was inspired by the complexity of patients’ conditions and the tsunami of need as an estimated 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 people who are infected with COVID-19 will develop long COVID. 

The Post-COVID-19 program is open to long COVID patients of any age, and teenagers through elderly patients have been among those treated. Providers have worked with ranchers in far eastern Montana, busy Hi-Line moms coping with brain fog, high school athletes suddenly fighting for breath, and patients with no primary care provider facing complex medical issues after a lifetime of health.

Long COVID symptoms may include ongoing fever, fatigue, breathlessness, renal and cardiovascular impairments, blood clots, muscle pain, depression, and other persistent physical and psychological effects.

The specialists in the program also have learned to factor in unique occupational exposures that can cause lung damage. Montana has many military service members and veterans, as well as wildland firefighters and railway workers.

One of the most devastating long COVID symptoms is brain fog, which makes daily life challenging to impossible and brings a host of psychological issues. The Benefis program typically has a five- to 12-week treatment for brain fog that sees an 80% to 100% recovery rate.

The program has been able to get 95% of patients off oxygen.

The program’s public-facing webpage at has research findings and a contact form for medical professionals to reach out with questions, and program medical director Dr. Brad Nieset is passionate about sharing his strategies with other medical professionals to help achieve positive outcomes for post-COVID patients. 

A patient in the Benefis program begins with an online intake form, followed by a telehealth consultation – another innovation of the program. Dr. Nieset determines their course through the program and the specialists they’ll work with, while keeping their primary care provider in the loop. Patients have connected with the program from across Montana and even other states because of the nationwide dearth of resources devoted to this new disease.

For the post-COVID team, success is measured by lung capacity gains, improved cognition, and other metrics, but the ultimate success is by patients reaching the goals they set based on what makes life worth living to them, whether that’s hiking in the mountains, going back to work, resuming high school track, or singing again.