The Tomah VA’s abusive over-prescription of narcotic painkillers has shocked veterans and concerned citizens alike in west-central Wisconsin, but so far, politicians like Ron Kind have managed to escape serious questioning about what they knew and when they knew it. However, recent reporting crystallizes prior evidence that Kind did in fact know exactly what was happening and that he did nothing until it became a threat to his image. The issue has been put on the back burner by local media, so first, a little background.
I’ve strongly suggested time after time that Ron Kind knew about the deadly over-prescription practices of the Tomah VA, which has been dubbed “Candyland” because it has leaned on narcotic opiate painkillers as a cure-all for the veterans who relied on their care. This practice has resulted in deaths, such as the death of 35-year-old Jason Simcakoski of Stevens Point and 45-year-old Kraig Ferrington of De Pere, both in Kind’s Congressional district. In the case of Ferrington, Fox 11 reported that when Kraig’s sister would pick him up after a visit to the facility, he was so high on pills he was incoherent. Her requests for him to enter detox were ignored, and her brother’s prescription was simply refilled time after time until his death.
Recently revealed evidence also suggests more deaths may be attributed to the facility’s obsession with narcotics, going back as far as 2008.
In addition to deaths resulting from the over-prescription of narcotics, the Tomah VA’s practices also led to noted instances of “drug diversion” in which legally prescribed drugs are sold on a black market. In a region where heroin and meth have eroded communities that were once strong and proud, there’s little doubt that the Tomah VA has functioned as a hidden nexus of addiction. There’s no telling to what extent the Tomah VA’s “Candyland” habits have harmed communities in west-central Wisconsin by contributing to addition to illegal drugs.
In January, shortly after the news broke via
an enterprising journalist in local media a California-based investigative journalism group, I was the first to wonder about what Congressman Ron Kind knew and when he knew it (and I was sure to note that I worked for Kind’s 2014 opponent, Army veteran Tony Kurtz). I had little doubt that Kind, the prototypical politician, had something to hide:
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.
Kind admitted his office heard about the over-prescription practices of the Tomah VA, but left ample room for the whole “well, I’m sure his office gets lots of complaints” thoughts that people use to delude themselves about politicians they habitually return to office cycle after cycle, like 18-year stalwart Ron Kind. New information suggests Kind did not first hear about the situation in 2011, but years earlier.
Following the widespread breaking of the news earlier this year, Kind elbowed other politicians out of the way, took the podium, shoved his finger heavenward, and proposed a “blue ribbon” government commission to investigate the situation. But evidence began to mount that he wasn’t just now finding out about the outrageous over-prescription of serious pain killers and the trampling of whistleblowers. Kind wasn’t rushing to take action acting unearthing an outrage – he was well-prepared with carefully crafted talking points because he had known for a long time that this was coming.
It was clear as far back as January that Ron Kind should have and most likely did know more than his blue-ribbon-commission-proposing gumflapping was letting on. In February, I wrote about an interview by Ryan Honl on Capitol City Sunday:
On Capitol City Sunday yesterday morning, Tomah VA whistleblower Ryan Honl told host Greg Neumann, “I had never heard from Congressman Kind’s office, and I had contacted him and I didn’t hear anything”…The OIG’s report was completed sometime last spring. But instead of aggressive action, Kind stood by while a deadly situation brewed in Tomah, blaming his not pursuing the facts of these cases on inaction by the VA and its inspector general.
Honl served as a secretary in the mental health area of the Tomah VA, but after confronting a series of situations that confounded his ethical compass, culimating in the decision to report the blatant drug abuses, and facing constant retaliation for sending those complaints up the ladder, he decided to leave. He has since become known as the face of a guerrilla insurgency against the Tomah VA and its now-dethroned head, David Houlihan. For what it’s worth, Honl is a Democrat.
La Crosse Tribune Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that several Democrats’ offices were contacted back in 2009 with detailed and shocking information about the Tomah VA’s practices, including Ron Kind. A union representing staff at the Tomah VA prepared the memo, listing as a major concerns the over-prescription problems at the Tomah VA. The memo was not mailed to Kind’s office, sent via carrier pigeon, or tied to a balloon in the hope favorable winds would drop it in front of his district office. It was hand-delivered to Kind at meetings on Capitol Hill. Yet Kind’s office claims it has no recollection of the memo.
The memo makes clear that as far back as 2009, tensions in Tomah over the problem had reached a “boiling point”:
In spring 2009, when Ellinghuysen wrote the memo, tensions about narcotics at Tomah had reached a boiling point. A pharmacist had been fired for refusing to fill large prescriptions. A clinical psychologist received a written reprimand at Houlihan’s direction after he raised concerns that too many opiates were being prescribed.
The memo, located in full here, lists two major concerns of the union. The second one begins, “A second serious concern is the fact that many of the Veterans served at this facility are prescribed large quantities of narcotics” (emphasis NOT added by me). It explains that practitioners who refused to fill Houlihan’s orders for large quantities of narcotic prescriptions were “yelled at and perhaps fired.”
The memo detailed the retaliation against a provider who refused to fill an order for “1,000+ narotic tablets for a 30 day supply for one of Dr. Houlihan’s patients.” (emphasis added). Take a moment and digest those numbers.
The report further outlines that Houlihan:
- Counted a complaint to the Patient Advocate against a provider as a “negative event” on the individual’s personnel file (punished them for filing a complaint)
- Instructed staff not to do urine/drug screenings prior to ordering narcotics for veterans
- Had earned the nickname “Candy Man” as far back as 2009
- There were “several unexplained deaths at this Medical Center” including 3 suicides in 2008 by veterans in parked vehicles at the Tomah VA
Put yourself in the shoes of a Congressman who regularly and publicly declares your dedication to veterans in your district. Imagine you’re someone who praised the Tomah VA in your 2014 campaign against a U.S. Army Veteran, in the midst of a nationwide VA scandal. Envision that you’re Ron Kind.
Having been handed a memo making the shocking statements that this memo made back in 2009, how could you just forget that you read it? After multiple complaints over the ensuing years, including one by a concerned whistleblower, how could you praise the Tomah VA in 2014?
Ron Kind knew about these problems for 6 years. He only expressed “outrage” after it became public – which conveniently happened just after the 2014 election.
If Ron Kind isn’t part of the problem facing veterans in this country, I don’t know who is.