By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is now calling for a “broad and detailed” investigation of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the VA system after bombshell reports of mass overprescribing of opiates, which may have led to the death of a Marine Corps veteran.
But the Wisconsin Democrat’s urgent news release doesn’t note she might have called for a thorough examination months earlier had her office not sat on a report detailing opiate abuses at the Tomah facility.
“A broad and detailed investigation of both the Tomah VA and relevant aspects of the national VA health system will provide much-needed accountability and information that will allow us to decide how we can best improve the delivery of timely and highest-quality care to veterans in Wisconsin and throughout the country,” Baldwin wrote in a letter this week to the VA’s lead investigator, Dr. Carolyn Clancy.
Baldwin encourages Clancy to meet with the whistleblowers who have raised myriad concerns, including allegations of retaliation by medical center administrators, and to “do so in a manner that allows individuals to be forthcoming.”
But Baldwin’s staff appears to have given the cold shoulder to whistleblower Ryan Honl, who has said he urged the senator to follow-up on an inspection report she received last summer laying out high amounts of painkillers prescribed at the Tomah facility.
Honl, according to a USA Today story earlier this month, learned in November that Baldwin’s office had been in possession of the report for months and had not acted on it. He repeatedly emailed the senator’s office asking that she do something to help the veterans, according to copies of the emails obtained by USA Today.
Baldwin and her office went dark immediately following the revelations. Then the senator suggested for a time her staff handled the matter appropriately. In recent days she has fired her deputy state director and offered the staffer a severance deal that includes a closed-mouth, confidentiality clause.
Baldwin has declined to answer questions on the firing, calling it a personnel matter. Her office has not returned multiple calls and emails from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
In full damage-control mode last week, Baldwin wrote an op-ed piece suggesting her office could have done more.
“In the fall, as we weighed next steps and additional concerns about problems at the Tomah VA were brought to our attention, we should have done a better job listening to and communicating with another constituent with whom we were working on problems at the VA,” she wrote in the column headlined, “We can do better for Wisconsin veterans.”
Now, the senator wants the system fixed, appearing front and center in demanding an immediate, “broad and detailed” investigation.
Honl did not return calls from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment Thursday, but in online responses to media stories the whistleblower keeps the heat on Baldwin.
In her letter, Baldwin acknowledges her office received the report on Aug. 29, 2014, and “did not address Mr. Simcakoski’s death because the report was completed five months earlier in March 2014.” Baldwin refers to Jason Simcakoski, a Marine Corps veteran who died at 35 of a fatal overdose while an inpatient at the Tomah VA facility.
“However, we have learned about some of the disturbing circumstances surrounding his death, and I believe this deserves your full attention,” Baldwin wrote to Clancy.
In his online response last week, Honl noted that Baldwin had not “committed to meeting with whistleblowers,” although now the senator is asking the VA’s lead inspector to do so.
“Senator Baldwin will be held to account for her direct failure of responsibilities to understand the gravity of what she was sitting on,” he wrote. “And who’s the only office that hasn’t or hasn’t committed to meeting with the whistleblowers here in Tomah even after the news this week? Senator Baldwin. Haven’t heard thing from her office since last year when all I got was feigned and fake concerns from lower level staff who are probably hiding in a cave right now.”
“There is nothing she can do at this point to gain my respect except a MAJOR mea culpa and a public statement of the facts, not what she released to the public …” Honl added.
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