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.
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.
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.
“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.
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