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Whistleblower: VA rearranging deck chairs on Titanic

By   /   November 17, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – After all of the investigations, the hearings, the recriminations. After the allegations of criminal misconduct, the retaliation, the deaths of veterans,  the embattled Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center has yet to clean up its act, a whistleblower charges.

“What people need to know is that they changed some of the chairs on the Titanic,” Ryan Honl, a former medical center employee, told Wisconsin Watchdog this week on the Vicki McKenna Show.

Honl, who helped shed light on alarming opioid over-prescription practices that led to the August 2014 death of 35-year-old veteran Marine Jason Simcakoski, said some of the key people who made “Candyland” possible are leading the medical center or have been rewarded with promotions.

AP file photo

OUT WITH THE OLD: Veterans Affairs whistleblower Ryan Honl speaks with President Barack Obama at a campaign stop. Honl implored the president to do something about the scandal-plagued VA medical system then. Honl said not much has changed.

While the VA got rid of the medical center’s chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan, a year ago, administrators brought in Victoria Brahm as interim director. While Brahm has been lauded by top VA brass for her work on the internal investigation of the hospital, Honl said Brahm could have done something earlier to confront the reported abuses.

“She was very much part of the ‘investigation’ of what was going on at the VA. Dr. David Houlihan had a direct phone line to her. So she knew of the complaints. Honl said. “And what does the VA do? They make her interim Tomah VA director.”

An official from Brahm’s office referred Wisconsin Watchdog to an agency spokeswoman, who did not return a request for comment.

Brahm took over in October 2015, replacing then-interim director John Rohrer. She was expected to serve in the post through January of this year, when a permanent director was supposed to have been named. A VA official said Brahm remains the interim director.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, last year said Brahm would be doing the “type of reforms” that Rohrer supposedly had been implementing.

“They’re going to modify those with a new and improved action plan,” he told the La Crosse Tribune.

Kind, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and other lawmakers have been accused of failing to respond and follow-up on whistleblower complaints that, among other allegations, accused Houlihan, known as the “Candy Man,” of presiding over a narcotics-abusing hospital.

Whistleblowers like Honl and former Tomah VAMC pharmacist Noelle Johnson were repeatedly retaliated against by Houlihan and his cronies in what a report issued earlier this year 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.

In May, 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, taking testimony from the VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson and the agency’s new Inspector General Michael Missal.

RELATED: Report finds Tomah VA hospital story one of ‘systemic failures’

Gibson insisted that leadership was taking “ownership” for the troubled facility.

Honl, who remains in contact with current Tomah employees, fears not much has changed.

“My boss that I had reported originally for fraud is now an executive at the Lovell VA hospital in Chicago,” the whistleblower said.

Lisa Noe, formerly mental health chief for the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in March was named associate director for geriatrics and mental health services at the VA’s Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago.

In complaints sent directly to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, Honl alleged that Noe instructed him to falsify records.

“It’s people scratching each other’s backs,” he said.

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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.