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Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis

By   /   December 1, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 34 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says those responsible for risking the health of nearly 600 veterans at the scandal-plagued Tomah VA Medical Center must be held accountable.

“The fact that a VA employee put veterans’ health at risk is unacceptable. Those responsible for ensuring the integrity of patient care procedures must be held accountable,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said in a statement Thursday.

News broke this week that 592 veterans may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis C, and other infections after a dentist at the Tomah hospital failed to follow standard infection control procedures for months.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not releasing the name of the dentist.  Victoria Brahm, acting Tomah VA Medical Center, told news outlets this week that the risk of infection is low but officials wanted to alert those who may be affected.

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‘UNACCEPTABLE:’: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said he has been in touch with federal agents about reports the health of nearly 600 veterans at the Tomah VA hospital was placed at risk because of improper dental practices.

It’s the latest chapter in a tragic story of alleged abuse at a government-run medical facility infamously known as “Candyland” because of the high volume of painkillers prescribed to patients. A 35-year-old Marine veteran in August 2014 died of a toxic cocktail of prescribed drugs while at the medical center.

Dr. David Houlihan, the hospital’s chief of staff, was fired last year but maintains his Wisconsin medical license. He and members of his administrative team also were accused of retaliating against whistleblowers who brought the allegations of abusive medical practices to light.

“My office has been in direct contact with Tomah VA Acting Director Victoria Brahm as well as the VA inspector general’s office regarding these allegations,” Johnson said. “As my 17-month investigation into the Tomah VA documented, there are serious problems with patient care at the facility.”

Johnson released a 359-page report in May detailing “systemic failures and preventable tragedies” at the medical center.

Officials say the latest health concerns in Tomah could have been prevented, too.

Brahm told News8000.com in La Crosse that the dentist in question knowingly did not follow VA standards for a year, between October 2015 and this October. A dental assistant blew the whistle on the misconduct.

“He had a replacement dental assistant, and she noted this particular piece of instrument being used … He brought in his own burs and cleaned them with Virex solution, salt and a wipe, which is nothing we endorse,” Brahm told the news site. “She reported it the next day, Oct. 20, to the dental chief who reported it to senior leadership. We took action Oct. 21.”

Former and current medical center employees tell Wisconsin Watchdog not much has changed following all of the investigations and a change in leadership.

“What people need to know is that they changed some of the chairs on the Titanic,” Ryan Honl, one of the whistleblowers who first brought the opioid abuse to members of Congress, told Wisconsin Watchdog earlier this month.

RELATED: Whistleblower: VA rearranging deck chairs on Titanic 

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 opioid 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.”

A current employee who asked not be identified said Brahm “puts on a good face,” but the hospital is “still bad and full of drug abuse and employee abuse.”

“I have even spoken with the director about this and how veterans are harassed in Tomah due to the VA. All that has been said is, ‘There’s still work to be done.’ The same tag line that is always used,” the source said.

Brahm did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s calls.

She told told News8000.com the culture is changing.

“There was a culture issue here, one of non-psychological safety, one of opioid abuse,” she said. “Those things are changing.”

Johnson said it is more than time for accountability. The first priority is taking care of the impacted veterans.

“I urge all potentially affected veterans to utilize resources available to them to receive the care they need during this time,” the senator said.

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

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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.