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Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke

By   /   April 23, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 19 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog

MADISON, Wis. — The abuse scandal that has rocked the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center is marked by a long line of governmental failures.

The failures of follow-through in Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office are well documented, as are missed opportunities and miscommunications in Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s office.

But comparatively little has been said about Rep. Ron Kind’s one-and-done handling of an anonymous complaint sent to his office years before three patients died and the hospital became the center of a national investigation.

A story last month by Gannett Wisconsin notes the La Crosse Democrat forwarded a whistleblower complaint about overprescribing of narcotics at Tomah in September 2011, but it appears Kind never followed up.

Associated Press photo

KIND QUESTIONS: U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, did forward on an alarming letter about abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center, but he apparently did not follow up with the agency’s inspector general office.

It turns out Kind merely sent the letter on to a VA inspector general hotline, something anyone could have done.

“Dear VA General:

“I received the attached anonymous complaint from a constituent concerning Dr. David Houlihan at VA Tomah. I have no further information to provide and I am forwarding this complaint to your office for your review,” Kind wrote in a note dated Sept. 29, 2011.

An official in Kind’s office said the congressman’s forwarding of the anonymous letter in part led to the inspector general’s eventual examination of reports of overprescribing of opiates at VA hospitals across the country. That report was not made public.

Representatives from the inspector general’s office did not return a request for comment.

It is clear that Kind, whose district includes Tomah, did not follow up with the inspector general’s office.

Peter Knudsen, the congressman’s spokesman, offered a politically careful answer when asked in January by the Center for Investigative Reporting what Kind had done since. He said Kind was “disappointed that it’s taken so long” for any action, but “he is in contact with officials at the VA and also people with knowledge of the situation in Tomah.”

Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained a copy of the anonymous complaint sent to Kind. It is alarming and an urgent call for help.

“Dear Congressman,

“I am appealing to you for some help on a sensitive matter. This concerns the Tomah veterans hospital and I prefer to remain anonymous because the party involved retaliates,” the complaint began.

The source, an employee at the medical center, refers to Dr. David Houlihan, who up until recently was in charge of a facility that earned the name “Candy Land” because of the allegations of staff handing out painkillers like candy. Houlihan has been described by whistleblowers as a bully who retaliated against anyone who made trouble.

“Some of his patients are drug abusers and display drug seeking behavior,” the employee wrote.

“Numerous employees — doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants — are so frustrated with his prescribing practices and the effects it has on the veterans that they just quit because their complaints go nowhere.”

It appears this complaint, like the pleas of other whistleblowers like former Tomah VA center employee Ryan Honl, went nowhere fast with the VA and some members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation. Honl has said he encountered problems getting through to the offices of Baldwin, Kind and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, although Baldwin and her staff appear to have done nothing with the information for months.

Honl, a Gulf War veteran, quit his job at the medical center shortly after starting because of the abuses he witnessed. In receiving a Whistleblower of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Honl told the ceremony’s attendees about another whistleblower — Christopher Kirkpatrick, a 38-year-old clinical psychologist at the Tomah hospital. Kirkpatrick committed suicide after being fired from the VA center. He had long complained about overly drugged patients, and had been reprimanded for doing so.

Kind has made the rounds in recent months declaring his disdain about the scandal.

“I’m really mad as hell and upset that we’re hearing reports about veterans not receiving care,” he told the La Crosse Tribune in a recent interview.

This week, the congressman introduced a bill in the House that would prohibit inspectors general in the federal government from publicly withholding the findings of their investigations.

“We could have taken much sooner action if we had a little bit more candidness about all this,” Kind said in a recent interview.

Part of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
  1. After damaging silence, Baldwin now calls for probe of troubled VA center
  2. Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’
  3. Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘coverup’
  4. Baldwin’s public relations team kicks into high gear following ethics complaint
  5. Ethics watchdog urges Senate committee to investigate Baldwin
  6. Tammy Baldwin’s political fixer is helping Hillary attack voter ID
  7. Senate committee asking if FBI missed the call in veteran’s death at VA
  8. When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans
  9. Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?
  10. Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says
  11. Does government union chief’s threat show AFGE’s hand on veterans care?
  12. What would Russ Feingold’s 1992 self say to the 2015 version?
  13. Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’
  14. Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war
  15. PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts
  16. Sources: Ron Kind received call from Jason Simcakoski not long before Marine’s tragic death
  17. Captain Campaign Finance Reform, Russ Feingold, changes ‘dark money’ tune
  18. Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal
  19. Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke
  20. Ron Kind now solving Tomah VA scandal one press release at a time
  21. Tammy Baldwin silent on her failures as she blasts Tomah VA medical center
  22. Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems
  23. Feingold’s facts fail again in face of Tomah scandal
  24. Senate field hearing to shine more light on Tomah VA scandal
  25. Tomah VA supervisor accused of misconduct gets promoted
  26. Senate hearing to look deeper into scandal-plagued Tomah VA hospital
  27. Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal
  28. Report: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failures’
  29. Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’
  30. Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital
  31. VA union holds rally to save itself, Tomah whistleblower says
  32. Sound familiar? Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth accused of retaliation at VA
  33. Emails say Tomah VA patient reached out to Feingold, Kind, in 2008 about abuse
  34. Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis
  35. Veteran jumps out of third-floor window at Tomah VA hospital
  36. Tomah VA employee: ‘We have forgotten who we work for’
  37. Congressional committees want answers on Tomah VA hospital
  38. Senators ask Pence, Trump transition team, to hold troubled VA accountable
  39. Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story
  40. Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license
  41. Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA
  42. Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction
  43. VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges
  44. Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care
  45. VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind
  46. Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens
  47. Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.