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When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans

By   /   November 11, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 8 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wisconsin — As the nation celebrates its veterans and pays tribute to their sacrifices, it’s important to remember the promise made to America’s protectors has too often been broken.

The headlines over the past few years in particular have screamed of neglect, ill-treatment and other abuses of too many veterans.

Photo by Tomah.va.org

TOMAH: The Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center was the scene of widespread opiate prescription abuse. But it was in the offices of some of Wisconsin’s federal lawmakers that the fatal failure deepened.

That broken faith was no more apparent than in Wisconsin, at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. While federal lawmakers have conducted a series of investigations into widespread over-prescription of opiates that led to the death of a 35-year-old Marine veteran at the facility and have pledged changes to the system, they did so after a series of investigative reports and the subsequent public pressure those stories created.

Ten months after the story first broke, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who was roundly criticized for failing to heed reports and whistleblower accounts of the problems, appears to have escaped any consequences from her Senate colleagues. Baldwin recently was cleared of a federal ethics complaint alleging she fired one of her top aides and offered her hush money to cover up failures.

RELATED: Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘cover-up’

Last month the union leader at the medical center said she tried to alert congressional Democrats of the prescription drug problems as early as 2009. Lin Ellinghuysen, president of the local chapter of American Federation of Government Employees “outlined the issues in an April 2009 memo that’s marked as having been ‘hand-delivered’ to Rep. Ron Kind, then-congressman Dave Obey and then-Sen. Russ Feingold, according to Donovan Slack, reporter for Gannett Wisconsin Media’s Washington bureau. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has acknowledged his office could have done a better job handling an email from a whistleblower.

Much has transpired since early January. Here’s a timeline of some of the key events:

  • Jan. 9 — Center for Investigative Reporting publishes first article documenting the over-prescription of painkillers at the Tomah VA Medical Center
  • Jan 22 — Sources tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Baldwin’s office offered a severance package to Baylor that includes a confidentiality agreement and a payment. “It is not known how much money she would receive, but insiders said it would be less than six figures.” Sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog that Baylor declined the offer.

    AP file photo

    TAMMY: U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, was the subject of an ethics complaint. Baldwins was accused of a political cover-up in her office’s failure to pick up on reports of painkiller over-prescription at the Tomah medical center. Her Senate colleagues recently cleared her of wrong-doing.

  • Jan. 24 — Baldwin meets with the family of Jason Simcakoski, the Marine who died of a “fatal mixture of drugs” at the Tomah facility.
  • Jan. 27 — “Aides to Baldwin did not respond to multiple messages asking what the senator did in response to the inspection report she received, or how she responded to the whistleblower’s emails.”
  • Feb. 18 — Baldwin hires Democratic Party’s top lawyer and political fixer Marc Elias. 
  • March 17 — A report finds the VA’s assistant inspector general for health care inspections kept a March 2014 review of over-prescription issues from the public because it “contained unsubstantiated allegations that might be damaging to the providers’ reputations.”
  • March 30 — Families of patients at Tomah VA and whistleblowers offer emotional testimony at a joint field meeting of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
  • Aug. 6 — A federal report confirms a lethal cocktail of opiates and other prescription drugs killed Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski while he was a psychiatric patient at Tomah.
  • October —Union leader at medical center tried to alert congressional Democrats about the over-prescription of opiates at the facility as early as 2009 — five years before a 35-year-old Marine died there when doctors prescribed him a fatal mixture of drugs, according to memos obtained by USA Today. “Lin Ellinghuysen, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents Tomah employees, outlined the issues in an April 2009 memo that is marked as having been ‘hand-delivered’ to Rep. Ron Kind, then-congressman Dave Obey and then-Sen. Russ Feingold. The politicians told the publication they have no recollection of receiving the memo. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has said his office did not receive the letter but that it could have done more to address concerns noted in a whistleblower email received by staff.A spokesman for Feingold, who is looking to win back the Senate seat he lost to Johnson in 2010, told USA Today that a “thorough review” of Feingold’s archived Senate records produced no evidence that he ever received the memo.”Russ believes our veterans deserve the care they’ve earned and been promised,” campaign manager Tom Russell said in a statement issued to the publication. “As a U.S. senator, Russ fought to open new clinics and centers in Hayward, Rice Lake, La Crosse and Wausau and for increased resources to help veterans in western and northern Wisconsin. As a U.S. senator, Russ would fight to improve care at our VA facilities and honor the service of our veterans by advocating for their interests in the Senate.”Wisconsin GOP spokesman Pat Garrett called out Feingold for “dodging responsibility.” Feingold “received hand-delivered information on the gross negligence and dangers inside the Tomah VA over six years ago, yet he ignored those warnings amidst his non- stop political campaign for power,” Garrett said in a statement. “Now, the Washington insider is playing politics again by blaming others and dodging responsibility instead of working to address the serious issues facing our veterans.”
  • Nov. 2 — Dr. David Houlihan, Tomah VA Medical Center chief of staff and psychiatrist is fired without any settlement or negotiation, according to VA officials. Houlihan had been on administrative leave since Jan. 16 over allegations of improperly prescribed painkillers. He was dubbed the “Candy Man” by some veterans.
  • November — Baldwin responds that Houlihan’s firing and revocation of his license were “long overdue” but show that “change is possible and provides new-found hope that trust can be restored” at VA. “That trust has been broken and it needs to be fixed. That is why I have introduced (legislation) that has earned the support of his family and a number of veteran service organizations to provide the VA with the tools it needs to help prevent this type of tragedy from occurring to other veterans and their families,” Baldwin said.
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.