April 1, 2015

DHS criticized for delays on Family Care info

Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point)

Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point)

A state lawmaker is accusing the Department of Health Services of intentionally delaying crucial information about proposed changes to long-term care programs.

The governor’s state budget plan would make cuts and other changes to multiple programs that are handled by Managed Care Organizations (MCOs), including Family Care. State Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) says the MOCs that help administer those programs have been unable to inform clients about the changes though. That’s because, under state law, they are unable to communicate with clients unless it is approved by the department.

The Stevens Point Democrat believes the agency has intentionally been “dragging its feet” on approving the release of that information in order to limit dissent on the proposals.

In a statement, DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley said “The Department is actively working with the Managed Care Organizations to ensure that any communications that MCOs provide to our members accurately describe the proposals, are factually correct and are productive.”

Lassa argues it’s still taking too much time though. With the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee set to begin taking up the budget plan in the coming weeks, she says the delay could jeopardize the ability of residents impacted by the changes to voice their opinions on them to lawmakers. Lassa worries lawmakers will have already adopted the provisions by the time DHS allows information to go out, and argues that “any further delay is unacceptable.”

Testimony blasts pain practices at Tomah VA

Ryan Honl

Ryan Honl

House and Senate committees heard testimony on Monday, regarding the opiate painkiller scandal at the Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center. Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs are looking into the practices at the Tomah VA, allegations of over-prescribing opiates to veterans, and retaliatory behavior toward whistleblowers at the facility.

Dr. Noelle Johnson is a former pharmacy specialist at the Tomah VA Center, who served as a pharmacy specialist at the Tomah VA Center from 2008 to 2009, told lawmakers that she believes her firing was due to her blowing the whistle on the pain medication practices of Tomah’s former chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan.

“I truly believe that Dr. Houlihan is a dangerous man, and what makes him so dangerous is a lack of respect for the medication in which prescribes,” Johnson said. “The quantities of narcotic medications coming out of the Tomah VA is irrefutably unsafe.” Johnson was subsequently reinstated at the VA. Houlihan and Tomah VA director Mario DeSanctis have been reassigned as the investigation into Tomah continues.

Also testifying on Monday was Ryan Honl, the whistleblower whose efforts finally helped to bring the overuse of opiate painkillers at Tomah to light. “The greatest problem requiring immediate change is for President Obama to nominate a permanent inspector general, and for Senate to confirm without partisan horse trading,” said Honl. “The VA Office of Inspector General has the blood of veterans on its hands.”

Marv Simcakoski is the father of Jason Simcakoski, a Marine veteran who fatally overdosed at the Tomah center last year. “I really got to know understand how Jason struggled with his addiction problem, only to have it over fueled time and time again by the Tomah VA doctors,” Simcakoski testified.

“I believe the VA’s over reliance on opioids has resulted in getting our veterans hooked instead of getting them help,” said Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who attended the hearing. “Over-prescription of opioids at the VA is clearly a root problem, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is growing into a weed of addiction whose impact is being felt beyond the VA walls. The devastation of addiction, on families and our communities, that is being grown at the VA is stunning.”

The field hearing is the latest official response, since the problems at Tomah were brought to light through a January 9 story by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The story related the death of Jason Simcakoski, as well noting that opiate prescriptions at Tomah grew by over 500 percent from 2004-to-2012, while nationally, the numbers of veterans on VA prescribed opiates dropped by 6 percent over the past year, as the VA moved to reduce pill usage and seek alternative treatments. According to the CIR report, the Tomah VA under the leadership of DeSanctis and Houlihan was widely referred to as “Candyland” by veterans receiving treatment there.

“When, as in Tomah, unethical practices go all the way up to the facility director, sending those concerns back to the facility director only leaves the fox to guard the henhouse,” said Honl, who said that DeSanctis had indicated there were no problems at the facility, when the hospital was visited last summer by Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse.

“Legislatively, this hearing is just the first step,” said Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. “In order to solve a problem, we must fully understand it and be willing to admit we have one. To that end, today we will hear from surviving family members, former employees, and representatives from the VA, and the VA Office of Inspector General.”

Wisconsin lawmakers propose state standards for rideshare companies

Lawmakers unveil proposed rideshare legislation. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Lawmakers unveil proposed rideshare legislation. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

As some cities in Wisconsin grapple with how to handle the growing popularity of rideshare services, state lawmakers are proposing statewide standards for the emerging companies.

The bill introduced at the Capitol on Monday would require rideshare services, which typically connect drivers and customers through mobile phone applications, to apply for a state license and pay an annual $5,000 fee. Drivers, who operate as independent contractors, would have to pass background checks, operate vehicles that meet strict safety regulations, and carry at least $1 million in commercial insurance.

State Representative Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva), a co-author of the proposal, said during a news conference Monday that rideshare services have the potential to help numerous communities in the state, which may not be large enough for cab companies to operate in currently. He said rideshare aps present a “new and emerging market, and as technologies within this sector continue to evolve, our statutes need to evolve right along with them.”

The legislation has bipartisan support. State Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said it will “allow for ridesharing in Wisconsin to grow while ensuring strong consumer protections will remain.”

The bill would overrule any local ordinances that have already been adopted in communities, such as Madison and Milwaukee. August said a statewide standard is preferable because it prevents a “patchwork of ordinances” from creating problems for drivers, who may cross city lines in larger markets and have to deal with different regulations in the process.

Rideshare services, also known as “Transportation Network Companies,” currently operate in Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay. Backers of the bill believe its passage would help encourage the expansion in more communities across the state.


Wisconsin budget committee holding final public hearing

Joint Finance Committee public hearing in Brillion (Twitter photo, Wisconsin Assembly Republicans @WIAssemblyGOP)

Joint Finance Committee public hearing in Brillion (Twitter photo, Wisconsin Assembly Republicans @WIAssemblyGOP)

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee hold their final public hearing today on Governor Scott Walker’s proposed state budget. The hearing, taking place at Reedsburg High School, is expected to draw hundreds of people who are looking to weigh in on Walker’s $70 billion biennial budget plan.

The hearing is the fourth that the JFC has held around the state, although many lawmakers have been holding their own listening sessions on the budget in districts throughout the state. During the last three hearings, legislators heard hours of testimony on budget provisions ranging from cuts to Family Care and public assistance programs, education funding cuts, changes to how the University of Wisconsin System operates, and plans for new bonding to fund transportation projects and construction of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Republican lawmakers on the budget panel have already indicated changes are expected to several parts of Walker’s budget. Those include removing a plan to give the UW System more autonomy, while also reducing the size of a proposed budget cut.

The Finance Committee is expected to begin work on revising the budget plan later this spring. A vote on the final package is expected sometime in June.

Lawmaker introduces ‘stolen valor’ legislation

Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton)

Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton)

Legislation being proposed at the Wisconsin Capitol would allow local prosecutors to go after people who falsely claim to be a military veteran.

State Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton) says the issue of people posing as veterans has become an issue, as more programs are created to help those who have served their country. He says “the outpouring of support from out country has been fantastic, but it’s also been an opportunity for those who want to try to game that system to use that fraudulently.”

Roth, a veteran of the Iraq War serving with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, says it’s shameful that someone would impersonate a veteran.

Under current law, only federal prosecutors can handle cases where someone has posed as a veteran. Roth’s bill would allow local prosecutors to charge someone with a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the severity of the situation.