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.
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.
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.
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