MADISON, Wis. – One of the whistleblowers who helped expose the deadly over-prescription scandal at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center is hitting U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold hard in a new political ad highlighting the failures of lawmakers to address the problem.
“I found out that Russ Feingold got a memo in 2009 that outlined veteran harm. And nothing was done. Russ Feingold ignored veterans’ concerns while veterans where dying at the facility,” Ryan Honl, a veteran and former employee at the medical facility, says in the 60-second TV ad.
Feingold, a Middleton Democrat who boasted one of the most liberal voting records in his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, is trying to reclaim the seat he lost to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in the 2010 election.
Honl, a Johnson supporter, has been very critical of Feingold’s handling of a letter a union official provided his office in 2009, a couple of years before a Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose of painkillers at the Tomah facility. The letter warned of an array of problems, including over-prescription at a VA center that has been described as “Candy Land.”
“All those veterans have come back wounded and they died at the hands of politicians who looked the other way,” Honl says, fighting back tears. “I just want the voters to know the real story.”
Gannett Media in October reported Feingold and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, did not do anything with a 2009 memo from AFGE local president (vice president at the time) Lin Ellinghuysen detailing the abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center. The memo was marked hand-delivered, but Feingold and Kind deny ever having seen it.
Ellinghuysen has since said she doesn’t believe the document was ever delivered to the lawmakers
In an interview earlier this year with Wisconsin Watchdog, Ellinghuysen acknowledged the Gannett reporter’s requests about Feingold’s involvement were making some people nervous.
“I was getting calls from AFGE national,” she said. “A lot of people were hearing there was going to be some kind of negative article on Feingold.”
“I knew what this was going to be about and I didn’t want to be part of it,” Ellinghuysen said.
“Now the union president here in Tomah is saying I am betraying the union. It’s politics for the Democrats. … They’ve circled the wagons about what’s going on at the VA,” Honl said following the revelations. “Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, they all want the VA to be a model of health care and it’s not. The unions, all they care about is their federal jobs. They put those jobs ahead of veterans.
“If they cared about what happening with the veterans, why wouldn’t (the union) go to everybody, including the Republicans” with the complaints of abuse, Honl added. “But the union just goes to the Democrats.”
Ellinghuysen told Wisconsin Watchdog that the union did not forward the letter to Wisconsin’s congressional Republicans.
“We didn’t even talk to Republicans then,” Ellinghuysen said, adding that as president of the local she makes a better effort these days of reaching out to all members of the delegation.
Honl also has accused Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders of failing to do anything about the abuse allegations when the current presidential candidate was chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Wisconsin junior Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, took the brunt of the criticism. It was her office that dropped the ball after whistleblowers begged the senator to look into the matter.
In the wake of the scandal, Baldwin fired a staff member, who then filed an ethics complaint alleging that Baldwin attempted to cover up her failure. The senator’s colleagues did not charge her.
A day after the anti-Feingold ad hit the airwaves, Baldwin was sending out press releases about her Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act.
Simcakoski was the Marine who died of the drug overdose in Tomah.
The bipartisan reforms are aimed at providing “safer and more effective pain management services to our nation’s veterans.”
“I am grateful to the members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for their bipartisan support of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act as this critical VA reform continues to move forward. Families like the Simcakoski family have a story to tell that needs to be heard,” Baldwin said in the statement.
Her critics say the families and the whistleblowers did have a story to tell. Unfortunately, Baldwin did not listen early on when lives could have been saved.
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