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March 31, 2015

Walker sees no need for religious freedom law in Wisconsin (AUDIO)

Gov. Scott Walker (Photo: WRN)

Gov. Scott Walker (Photo: WRN)

Governor Scott Walker does not see the need for Wisconsin to take up any proposal that would be similar to a controversial religious freedom law recently passed in Indiana.

The state already has a “healthy balance here between protecting religious liberties and making sure that we also protect against discrimination,” Walker said during a stop in Plover on Monday. The governor added that he thinks the issue is one that’s better handled on a state-by-state basis, and noted that Wisconsin already has laws in place that protect religious freedom.

AUDIO: Gov. Scott Walker (:20)

The religious freedom law signed last week by Indiana Governor Mike Pence has sparked a firestorm of controversy for the state, with opponents arguing it will allow business owners to legally discriminate against the LGBT community. Pence has denied that’s the case, but asked the state’s Legislature on Tuesday to pass a bill this week that would clarify that the law does not allow discrimination against anyone.

Study says Wisconsin prevailing wage law costs taxpayers

Construction site in Madison

Construction site in Madison

A new study claims to show that Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law is costing taxpayers millions. The study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance was commissioned by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin. John Mielke is the group’s president. “What the study found is that the prevailing wage laws don’t reflect local wage standards like proponents claim, but that they actually inflate local wages,” Mielke said.

Legislation which would repeal the state’s prevailing wage statute is awaiting a committee hearing. “What we want is a system that results in market rates,” said Mielke. “Probably the most efficient way to do that is to repeal prevailing wage and just let the market take care of it. Are there other things that could be done to improve the situation? Absolutely, but we’re supporting repeal.”

The study – which is being widely disputed – found state and local governments would have saved $200 to $300 million in 2014 by paying “market-based” wages. “What’s unique about this study is that the taxpayers alliance doesn’t take a stand here, but they looked at the methodology that we use here in Wisconsin, and found it to be flawed. State and local units of government could save millions of dollars in excess construction costs if we fixed it.”

The Taxpayers Alliance found that prevailing wages and benefits are on average 45 percent higher than local market rates, and that state wage calculations are flawed due to small sample sizes and a formula that often considers only the highest reported wages.
Wisconsin is one of 32 states with prevailing wages laws. The Wisconsin law was established in the 1930s and revised in the 1990s.

Mark Reihl, executive director of the 9,000-member Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters, told Gannett Wisconsin Media that the study assumes savings for the taxpayer by lowering wages in construction. “The problem with that is if you have lower wages you’re not going to get the same level of efficiency, productivity and quality.”

The Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, a group of 450 construction companies that supports prevailing wages, also criticized the study as flawed.

Walker says Texas visit reinforced need to secure border

Gov. Scott Walker (Photo: WRN)

Gov. Scott Walker (Photo: WRN)

Following a trip to Texas last week, Governor Scott Walker is convinced that security along the US-Mexico border needs to be a priority.

Walker toured the border last Friday with Texas Governor Greg Abbott. During a stop in Plover on Monday, he said the trip helped reinforce for him the need to make sure the area is secure in order to protect the safety and sovereignty of the US. “You’ve got international criminal organizations bringing people, but also drugs and firearms, on a routine basis across that border.”

The Republican governor, who is considering a presidential run, noted that it will take more than just putting manpower and technology in place to prevent illegal crossings. Walker said he supports having a mandatory e-verify system to make sure every person working in this country is here legally.

Walker does not support amnesty for those who have been in the country illegally, and said they should have to go back to their country of origin if they plan to seek citizenship.

Larry Lee at affiliate WSAU contributed to this report.

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.