MADISON, Wis. – Things may soon get a whole lot more problematic for the Democrats who claim they had no idea about the deadly abuses that occurred at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, recently told WisconsinEye that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a field hearing in Tomah. Wisconsin Watchdog has learned the hearing is scheduled for May 31 at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah.
“We’re going to be publishing about a 300-page report, I’m going through it now, that is going to lay out even more information in terms of the abuses at Tomah and really the problems within our VA health care system,” Johnson, chairman of the committee, said in an interview at last weekend’s state GOP convention.
A source with knowledge of the hearing tells Wisconsin Watchdog that it will include Jason Simcakoski’s phone records showing the Marine veteran called the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Rep. Ron Kind shortly before he died in August 2014.
A Veterans Affairs Department investigation last year into Simcakoski’s death found staff failed to properly prescribe medications and “blundered the medical response when the veteran was found unresponsive in his bed,” according to the Military Times.
The report showed Simcakoski died Aug. 30, 2014, from a “mixed drug toxicity,” the result of taking 13 prescribed medications, including several that cause respiratory depression, in a 24-hour period.
Whistleblowers attempted to alert Kind, a La Crosse Democrat, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and then-Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, who is running to regain the seat he lost to Johnson in 2010.
Baldwin’s office clearly mishandled reports of the over-prescription of opioids and retaliatory conduct at the hospital. She ended up blaming and firing an aide in the aftermath. The aide alleged Baldwin used her as a scapegoat to cover up her own culpability. Baldwin’s friends in the Senate dismissed the complaints.
Feingold and Kind claim they never saw memos that were marked “hand-delivered” to their offices. A former Tomah employee who blew the whistle on the abuses has challenged those claims. The argument is at the heart of an issue ad attacking Feingold for failing to respond.
Baldwin, who is a member of the committee, and Kind have been invited to the hearing.
Johnson said the only way to reform a broken bureaucracy is to “shine the light of day on it, and to have a transparent, independent inspector general.” That’s why he has invited Michael Missal, appointed last year as the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general, to testify.
Tomah was the site of a rare and highly emotional congressional field hearing in March 2015 in which it was learned that dozens of veterans had died under suspicious circumstances under the leadership of the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan. He was subsequently fired.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure these tragedies don’t happen to others,” Johnson told a packed audience of 400 veterans and family members at the Cranberry Country Lodge at that hearing.
A number of reforms have been proposed — and a few have been enacted — in the wake of the scandal.
Asked about a report that wait times are getting longer at Tomah, Johnson said that would not surprise him. He said it continues to be difficult to “get information out of any government agency.”
What Wisconsin has learned, Johnson said, is the many failings of a single-payer health care system.
“The VA health care system is a single-payer, government-run bureaucratic system,” the senator said. “By the way, that’s exactly what Sen. Feingold wants for all of Wisconsin. He was one of the 60 deciding votes for Obamacare.”
“He wanted a single-payer system. Well, now Wisconsin knows what a single-payer, government-run bureaucratic health care system looks like.”
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