MADISON, Wis. – A 2008 email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog states former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold was notified of alleged abuse of a psychiatric patient at the hands of the chief of staff of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The hospital became known as “Candyland” by patients and staff for its reputation of overprescribing painkillers.
“By the way he (the patient) has told me he sent a letter to (U.S. Rep.) Ron Kind and (then-U.S. Sen.) Russ Feingold requesting their help,” wrote a member of the Tomah nursing team in March 2008 to Lin Ellinghuysen, a representative of the VA hospital’s local union.
Feingold and Kind have been accused of not acting on myriad allegations of misconduct at the medical center.
Ellinghuysen, now president of the local chapter of American Federation of Government Employees, originally tried to alert congressional Democrats about the over-prescription of opiates at Tomah as early as 2009, according to memos obtained last year by USA Today. The union rep’s warnings came five years before the death of a 35-year-old Marine Jason Simcakoski, who died at the facility after receiving a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs.
Ellinghuysen originally said she “hand-delivered” memos to Kind and Feingold, both Democrats, in 2009, but later walked back those statements. Critics say she downplayed her original statements after getting pressure from the AFGE headquarters, which apparently heard an earful from Feingold’s people.
Feingold and Kind have said they never received the memos.
Several congressional inquiries and federal investigations found an array of critical issues at the VA hospital.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, the incumbent Feingold is campaigning to unseat in next month’s election, published its findings in late May in a report titled “The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center” .
The report lays out a long list of misconduct, abuse, and retaliation charges over several years, and nearly as many red flags that critics say, had they been heeded, could have saved lives.
“Dating back nearly 10 years, the Tomah VA has been plagued by allegations of dangerous prescription practices and administrative abuses. For years, actions that should have served as warning signs were ignored and problems at the Tomah VA festered,” Johnson said at a Senate field hearing in Tomah.
The 359-page report included thousands of pages of source materials, in the interest, the committee said, of full transparency. It is in these pages Wisconsin Watchdog found the emails indicating Feingold and Kind were notified in early 2008 of some of the problems at Tomah.
The email to Ellinghuysen followed an incident in which Dr. David Houlihan, the hospital’s chief of staff at the time, is accused by multiple sources of verbally abusing a psychiatric patient. Houlihan was fired in 2015 months after investigative news stories reported that the doctor was referred to by patients and staff as the “Candy Man” for his alleged practices of over-prescribing painkillers.
“Dr. Houlihan yelled at the patient; got in the patient’s face; and forcefully several times knocked his leg against the patient’s knee. This was a psych patient, debilitated, and sitting in a wheelchair! …,” Ellinghuysen wrote in a follow-up email to federal investigators. The emails are found toward the end of the source materials PDF.
The patient was not identified in the email communications. Nor was the member of the nursing staff who wrote to Ellinghuysen that the patient alerted Feingold and Kind about the problems at the VA hospital. Feingold’s campaign and Kind’s handlers have not returned several requests for comment regarding the medical center scandal.
“Houlihan was out of line with the veteran,” the staff member wrote in the partially redacted email. Houlihan was face to face with the veteran in a verbal altercation … By the way he (the patient) has told me he sent a letter to Ron Kind and Russ Feingold requesting their help. I would not tell Houlihan or (name redacted) and see if anything comes from it.”
Apparently nothing ever did.
Ellinghuysen pushed the matter with Houlihan, each getting into a war of words via email.
“Please! The patient was non-violent; the patient did not strike out – there was an abusive (action) – but it was not coming from the patient or the nursing staff,” she wrote in a March 2008 email to Houlihan and several others.
According to the exchange, the nursing staff on duty did not follow Houlihan’s instructions in dealing with the patient because the nurses believed Houlihan was the abuser and his orders failed to meet policy. The veteran was pulled away from the room and dragged into “protective placement,” according to the emails.
The chief of staff did not take kindly to what he referred to as “accusations against my clinical skills.”
“The order that was refused (twice) to be acted on by the nursing staff was a [sic] clinically indicated by the only staff on that unit qualified to make that assessment (myself),” Houlihan wrote. He said he took the actions for the patient’s “own safety.”
“Please refrain from personal accusations … for my position does require I endure libelous statements,” he advised in his email to Ellinghuysen.
In her email to Houlihan, Ellinghuysen notified the doctor that many staff and patients “are stating they are notifying/or have notified their congressional representatives and reporting the ill/poor treatment of mental health patients and the poor treatment given to the nursing staff.”
It is not clear just who made contact with the lawmakers.
In the case of AFGE, the union, according to Ellinghuysen, was only notifying Wisconsin’s Democratic congressional delegation.
“We didn’t even talk to Republicans then,” Ellinghuysen told Wisconsin Watchdog in an earlier story, adding that as president of the local she makes a better effort these days of reaching out to all members of the delegation.
In spring 2009, not having heard back from the lawmakers’ offices, Ellinghuysen took her concerns to an investigator with the Juneau County Sheriff’s Department who was looking into the reported suicide of a staff psychologist at Tomah.
In audio from that interview, Ellinghuysen suggests Feingold, Kind and former U.S. Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, knew as early as summer 2008 that deaths were occurring due to the over prescription of opiates and painkillers in Tomah VA Hospital.
“I do believe that, though, the walls of Jericho are shaking a little bit right now because April of this year I wrote a letter to congressmen and senators,” Ellinghuysen told Detective Ben Goehring during the 2009 interview. The audio was included in a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Feingold’s campaign was livid earlier this year about independent ads attacking him on the Tomah VA issue.
At a campaign stop in Eau Claire in early June, Feingold said his opponent is allowing outside groups to politicize the tragic events.
He then told a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal that his “first impression” of the Senate committee report was that he is “not mentioned anywhere” in the 359-page findings.
True. But he definitely was in the report’s notes.
The same source notes from the Senate committee report showed a seven-minute, 39-second call from Simcakoski’s phone to Kind’s office on the evening of Nov. 8, 2013. The call was placed some nine months before the veteran died.
Kind told his hometown newspaper, the La Crosse Tribune, he had no knowledge of the call.
The congressman at the time said his office would “conduct a thorough review” of its files. It is unclear where that review stands.
“I can’t imagine that if someone, anyone called my office, gave their name and asked for help, then a case file would have been started immediately,” Kind told the newspaper after Wisconsin Watchdog first reported on the call.
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