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Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’

By   /   June 2, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 29 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – After all the investigations, after all of the reports, after all of the hearings, Ryan Honl remains a man without much hope.

“I’ve dealt with this first-hand for almost two years. I don’t have good news for the public. It will not change,” Honl the former employee turned whistleblower at the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center told Wisconsin Watchdog Wednesday on the Vicki McKenna Show on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA.

He expressed his misgivings a day after a Senate committee led by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, released a 359-page report into myriad allegations of misconduct, abuse, and retaliation at the hospital. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also held a field hearing in Tomah Tuesday, taking testimony from the VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson and the agency’s new Inspector General Michael Missal.

Gibson insisted that leadership is taking “ownership” for the troubled facility, referred to as “Candy Land” because of its former chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan’s reported practices of overprescribing painkillers to patients – a practice that is believed to have led to the deaths of at least two veterans.

AP file photo

HOPELESS WHISTLEBLOWER: Ryan Honl, a former employee and whistleblower at the Tomah VA Medical Center, talks briefly with President Obama in LaCrosse last year. Honl says he has no hope things will change at Tomah or in the VA health care system at large.

More so, whistleblowers like Honl and former Tomah VAMC pharmacist Noelle Johnson were repeatedly retaliated against by Houlihan and his cronies in what the report described as a “culture of fear.” Honl quit his secretary position after he said he was constantly harassed and intimidated. Johnson was fired after questioning prescriptions.

“To hear someone like Sloan Gibson, the deputy secretary, say, ‘We own this,’ well, guess what? You’ve owned it for a long time and the outcomes have gotten worse,” Honl said, adding Gibson’s public mea culpa was done solely for the benefit of the Senate committee dogging his troubled bureaucracy.

The whistleblower has joined a chorus of critics in recent years asserting that the VA health care system, the model for liberals pushing universal health care, is broken beyond repair. What the single-payer, socialized medicine VA health care system needs more than anything, Honl and others insist, is competition.

RELATED: REPORT: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failure’

The problems at Tomah and in multiple VA health care facilities – particularly the long wait times – can’t be fixed until veterans are truly given the market choice of private-sector care, Honl said.

“Until (the VA has) to compete and increase the quality and focus on quality and customer satisfaction, why would you change the product when you actually get more and more of the taxpayers’ money year after year regardless of worsening outcomes,” he said.

But Democrats and Republicans alike keep throwing more money at the problem, Honl said.

Despite the tragedies at Tomah and other VA hospitals, the agency and its supporters have much at stake in defending the system.

The Veterans Health Administration is home to the United States’ largest integrated health care system, with 150 medical centers, nearly 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics, community living centers, Vet Centers and Domiciliaries, according to the agency. As of October, the system employed more than 53,000 health care practitioners and many more support staff.

The union that represents many of the health care employees at the Tomah hospital certainly is feeling pressure to hold intact the bureaucracy that it once openly complained about.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees at Tuesday’s field hearing passed out fliers with this alarming language: “Learn about ‘Commission on Care’ and How it could affect your job!!! National VA system is under attack!!!”

AFGE Local 0007 has planned a Town Hall style meeting on Friday, June 3, at the American Legion in Tomah.

Is the union’s primary concern delivery of health care to veterans? Or is it worried about lost membership – and lost dues – from lost government jobs.

In response to growing concerns about the VA’s ability to provide access to medical services for veterans and manage the operations of the Veterans Health Administration, congress passed a law establishing the Commission on Care. It is charged with examining access and how “best to organize the VHA, locate health resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years.”

VHA advocates worry that the real purpose is to do what whistleblower Honl and others say must be done: truly open up the free market to this single-payer system.

It wasn’t too long ago liberal economist Paul Krugman was extolling the virtues of the VHA, describing it as a “huge policy success story, which offers important lessons for future health reform.” Those future lessons proved to be the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Both government-run systems have encountered plenty of administrative and health care delivery problems.

Advocates of the VHA insist it is a model health care system.

Kimberly Ziegler, mother and primary caregiver to Gauge Griffin a Marine who was badly injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan in 2011, said the Tomah VA Medical Center has provided tremendous care to her son.

“We’ve never had a bad experience with anyone we’ve run into,” said Ziegler of Ettrick, Wis. “I’m scared of them shutting the doors. I’m nervous because we are so connected to our (health care) team. To have to start over, that’s very scary.”

But plenty of veterans have had horrible experiences in the government-run health care system. Honl and others say those veterans won’t be satisfactorily served until the VHA has to compete with the private sector.

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


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.