The Candyland Scandal

In the space of just weeks, the Veterans Affairs clinic in Tomah has earned the nickname “Candyland.”

The news broke a few weeks ago when The Center for Investigative Reporting wrote about the enormous spike in prescription opiates being disseminated at the Tomah VA. The dispersement of opiates quadrupled from 2004 to 2012 at the hospital; Oxycodone pills prescribed there skyrocketed from 50,000 pills to 712,000 per year.

Other reports detail that some patients would be prescribed more drugs even when their systems contained none of the drugs, implying the drugs might be being sold in the community:

A 12-page VA Inspector General report released March 12, 2014, said “the Tomah police department reported suspicions that some Tomah VAMC patients were misusing their prescribed controlled substances in various ways including drug diversion,” reported the Tomah Journal’s editor.

This is in a state and region with rampant problems with heroin, meth, and drug-related crime. Since many addicts “graduate” from prescription opiates to those hard drugs, there’s no telling what kind of impact this has had in communities throughout western Wisconsin.

The La Crosse Tribune editorialized that “it’s time for the Tomah VA to come clean” shortly after the story broke. Profound words, but how about the paper gets out of bed with Ron Kind and asks him some tough questions. It’s time for Ron Kind to put down the barbell, do some lunges on his way out of the congressional gym, and come clean himself.

Kind’s office claims it received its first anonymous complaint in 2011. Yet he also claims the Tomah VA “didn’t notify me…they didn’t notify anyone.” In a press conference, Kind dodged all responsibility for the scandal, slyly shifting blame to the VA for his own failure to follow up on complaints while simultaneously offering limp platitudes about the whole situation.

At the presser, Kind said, “they (the Tomah VA staff) candidly admit they dropped the ball when they didn’t share the findings with us and they need to keep our offices better informed,” all while he “lamented allegations of a ‘culture of intimidation’ that frustrates staff members who raise issues about care.” These are the words of a miserable, lazy congressman and it’s a pathetic attempt at a news report.

(By the way, Democrats would be shocked and appalled and would no doubt jump immediately to legislate against allegations of intimidation of whistleblowers and dissenters against immoral behavior at any private corporation.)

Kind’s office did hear complaints prior to the Office of the Inspector General’s report’s release early last year. He was aware, yet by all appearances did nothing to look into the issue further or bring the issue to light. Why, during last year’s campaign, did Kind offer ebullient praise for the Tomah VA if he knew things were fishy?

I worked for Tony Kurtz, the Republican who ran against Kind last fall. Scrounging for opposition research against Kind, we heard some hearsay about the free-flow of pills at Tomah, but we couldn’t substantiate anything. Surely the sitting congressman would have as much – and probably much more – insight as some insurgent campaign.

The timing of the publication of the OIG report and subsequent media is suspect, coming out just after an election that could’ve been perilous for Kind. Kind won handily – 57-43 – but an issue like this could’ve destroyed his coiffed image as a conscientious defender of those who the majority of voters want defended.

Claims by lethargic, lead-from-behind politicians like Ron Kind that he didn’t know are demonstrably bogus:

“But the problems disclosed should not have surprised politicians or federal officials: Health care professionals at the hospital have complained for at least five years about Houlihan’s prescription practices and his retaliatory management style — filing numerous reports with those in charge of oversight,” reported the Center for Investigative Journalism.

The story itself was titled, “Alarm over overmedication, retaliation follows years of complaints.”

We elect leaders to lead. Ron Kind – along with Sen. Jennifer Shilling, whose district borders Tomah and who thus far has escaped unscathed; and Sen. Julie Lassa, in whose district the facility is located – and those supposed leaders have sat idly by as complaints added up and a serious problem became evident.

During last year’s Phoenix VA scandal, Ron Kind proposed a “blue ribbon commission” to investigate the problems.

People like Ron Kind are exactly what’s wrong with our government.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.