July 6, 2015

Fired Baldwin staffer files ethics complaint against Wisconsin Democrat

Tomah VA

Tomah VA

A former staffer for U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has filed a complaint against the Wisconsin Democrat. The filing with the Senate Ethics Committee by Marquette Baylor comes three months after Baylor was fired as Baldwin’s Deputy State Director, in the wake of media coverage which claimed that Baldwin’s office had failed to act on a report regarding the over-prescription of opiate painkillers to patients at the Tomah VA Medical Center.

The issue was brought to light in a January report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and subsequent media reports showed that Baldwin’s office had been made aware of the problems at Tomah in August of 2014, but failed to act.

According to Baylor’s 16-page complaint, “Baldwin immediately sought to place the blame squarely on me. She instructed her Chief of Staff, Bill Murat, to fly to Milwaukee, fire me, and offer me a severance package that required me to stay quiet. Murat then moved into damage control, meeting with individuals in Wisconsin and telling them that the inaction was my fault.”

Baylor, who rejected the severance deal, states in the complaint that she prepared a proposed action plan on the Tomah VA report, and that Murat was actually to blame for inaction on that.

“Senator Baldwin and her staff have disparaged the truth in order to cover up Murat’s actions and to protect her political career,” the complaint states. “By attempting to place the blame at my feet, Senator Baldwin has concealed the truth, made false statements, and mischaracterized my service as the Deputy State Director. Her actions to cover up Murat’s willful misconduct are unbecoming of a United States Senator. She has acted unethically.”

Also in the complaint, Baylor characterizes a report prepared by an attorney for Baldwin as an attempt “to their spin on facts they thought would come to light.” Baldwin’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Joe Fadness Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, issued a statement in response to Baylor’s complaint.

“Tammy Baldwin has been holding back the truth for months, and this Complaint is a startling revelation that Baldwin will say and do anything to protect herself and stay in power. If true, Baldwin must finally answer lingering questions about her role in the cover-up and decision to mislead Wisconsin.​”

“It’s sad that Marquette Baylor has chosen to be used as a pawn by Senator Baldwin’s right wing Republican opponents in what is nothing more than political hit job by a ‘go-to Republican firm,” said Baldwin spokesman John Kraus.

“Senator Baldwin has taken responsibility for mistakes in here office, including Marquette Baylor’s and others, and she has taken steps so that these kind of mistakes never happen again. She has made it clear that Marquette Baylor was terminated because of long term issues of poor performance on a range of issues. As Deputy State Director for Constituent Services, her mishandling of the problems at the Tomah VA was only one of those issues, but she was not let go simply because of her mishandling on the Tomah case. As Senator Baldwin has said, our former Casework Supervisor was responsible for being in charge of constituent services, but she had not put in place the most basic elements of managing and tracking constituent services. She also failed to meet the Senator’s standards for high quality constituent service and there were instances where she had been rude and inappropriate with constituents and staff that were simply 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.”

Congressional committees to hold Tomah field hearing

Tomah VA

Tomah VA

Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hear testimony on Monday, as they look into the practices at the Tomah VA Medical Center, allegations of over-prescribing opiates to veterans, and retaliatory behavior toward whistleblowers at the facility.

The joint hearing is scheduled to get underway held at 1:00 p.m. at Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah.

Wisconsin congressman Ron Kind, who sent a letter last month to the House Committee, requesting the hearing, said testimony will include that of Ryan Honl, the former Tomah staff member who originally raised concerns about the use of opiates at the center.

Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA Interim Undersecretary for Health, will also testify. “I’m sure she’ll be talking about the investigation at Tomah, but also what’s been implemented there, as well as throughout the entire VA system,” said Kind.

The Tomah Center remains under investigation by Clancy’s office and the  VA’s Office of the Inspector General. 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.

According to the story, at least one veteran died of a drug overdose while at the hospital, which had become known as “Candy Land” by some patients.

Subsequently, the VA reassigned Tomah VA director Mario DeSanctis, as well as Dr. David Houlihan, a psychiatrist and former chief of staff.

Despite the scandal surrounding opiate painkillers, Representative Kind said it’s important to realize that many veterans remain highly satisfied with the Tomah center. “I’ve heard from many, many veterans since these stories first broke, about how satisfied  they are with the quality of care that they personally have been receiving,” he said.

In response to the Tomah crisis, the La Crosse Democrat and Representatives Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) have introduced a bipartisan bill to improve veterans health care, and specifically address pain management concerns.

Bill from Kind and Ribble would address VA painkiller concerns

Tomah VA

Tomah VA

New federal legislation proposed in the wake of the Tomah Veterans Administration prescription painkiller crisis. The bipartisan Veterans Pain Management Improvement Act would establish pain management boards around the country. It’s based on a recommendation by the VA Office of Inspector General.

“I think it’s a recommendation that we need to move forward on,” said Wisconsin Representative Ron Kind. “This will create statutory authority for the VA to move forward on it, and I think time is of the essence.” The La Crosse Democrat introduced the measure with Congressmen Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY)

The pain management boards would be set up in each Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) composed of health care professionals and clinical patients and/or family members of a clinical patient. The pain management boards would:

· Serve as a resource for the region’s facilities, patients, and family members
· Provide best practices recommendations for pain management to the VA facilities within its region, including patient, family member and medical perspectives
· Provide an annual report to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs about pain management practices within its region: what is working and what is not working
· Report to Congress, so that there is greater accountability on pain management practices

The bill is in response to the events at the Tomah VA hospital, where a patient fatally overdosed amid widespread over-prescription of opiate painkillers. “This is a problem that’s endemic throughout the entire health care system, and this may prove to be a model of how we can move forward to correct it,” Kind said.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has scheduled a field hearing in Tomah on Monday.

Construction workers dye beards green, raise money for Honor Flight

Never Forgotten Honor Flight

Never Forgotten Honor Flight

What started as a St. Patrick’s Day joke turned into a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser to help area veterans.

Several employees of Wisconsin Public Service’s Weston Three ReACT facility have teamed up with construction workers. Kelly Zagrzebski said men are dying their beards green to raise money for the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.  “And they were collecting money to dye their beards green, so over 50 folks, construction staff, actually went and dyed their beards green.”

Since they had never done this before, Zagrzebski said the initial goal was low, but it didn’t take long to realize they would easily surpass it.  They’ve generated a lot of green stuff from their green beards, well over $500. “Our goal was 50, so we’re more than that, and our goal for fundraising was $500, and again, we are well over the $500.”

Zagrzebski said the fundraiser all started when construction workers were making wisecracks about their beards.  “The project started by somewhat of a joke down in the construction trailer,” she recalled, “and someone said, ‘I’d pay to see that.’ So, it took off from there.”

Later Tuesday, Jim Campbell from Never Forgotten Honor Flight will go the construction site, where the construction workers from WPS, Boldt Construction, and others will present him with the money raised by hair on their green chins.