Tomah VA Whistleblower Has Questions for Ron Kind

The following report by M.D. Kittle of Watchdog.org deserves to be re-printed in full.

Click here for the original article.

A whistleblower who helped shine light on abuses at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah has some pointed questions for U.S. Representative Ron Kind.

Ryan Honl, a former employee at the scandal-plagued hospital and clinics, on Wednesday hand-delivered a letter to a Kind aide holding a listening session in Tomah.

Honl wants to know what the La Crosse Democrat or his staff said to Jason Simcakoski during a phone call to Kind’s D.C. office in November 2013, about nine months before the Marine veteran died of a “toxic cocktail” of painkillers and other drugs at the medical center.

In May, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a stinging report titled, “The Systematic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medical Center.” The report described a “culture of fear” at the government-run hospital known as “Candyland” because of reported staff practices of overprescribing opioids. Dr. David Houlihan, the former head of the medical center who was commonly referred to as the “Candy Man” by patients and whistleblowers, was fired in November 2015. Last month a state agency stripped him of his medical license in Wisconsin.

Source notes from a 359-page Senate committee report show a 7-minute, 39-second call from Simcakoski’s phone to Kind’s office on Nov. 8, 2013.

At a May 31 hearing on the committee’s findings, Kind refused to answer Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions about the call.

“Contact my office,” Kind curtly said.

“But congressman, you are right here,” a Wisconsin Watchdog reporter responded.

Kind hastily left the conference room of the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah following the committee hearing.

A day later, the congressman told another news organization that his office would “conduct a thorough review” of its files.

“I can’t imagine that if someone, anyone called my office, gave their name and asked for help, then a case file would have been started immediately,” Kind told the La Crosse Tribune.

He released a follow-up statement asserting that his office doesn’t have a record of Simcakoski’s call. The congressman’s statement said the office has “strict protocol to handle every call in an appropriate way” and that its process “ensures that when constituents provide their name and contact information, and have concerns, those concerns are addressed.”

“If Jason had called our office to ask for help, we would have immediately opened a casework file and asked him to sign a Privacy Release Form in order to work on his case, as we have with almost 2,000 veterans’ cases since 2011,” the statement said. “If he had provided information, we would have flagged it and sent to the authorities, like we did when we sent the VA Inspector General an anonymous letter we received in 2011. Lastly, if he in any way sounded distressed we would have asked for his contact information and taken immediate action to reach out to the proper authorities.”

Photo by Wisconsin Watchdog

But the call records in the report’s source notes clearly indicate Simcakoski called Kind’s office and the call lasted 7 minutes, 39 seconds. Just as the records show the veteran, on the same morning, called the VA police in Tomah, and made an 8-minute call to the FBI field office in La Crosse. The FBI has declined to comment.

“Jason himself, according to the family and the congressional report, was basically a whistleblower,” Honl said in an interview Wednesday with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show.  “He was calling the FBI, he was calling the VA police, he was calling lots of other places to try to get some attention to the drug diversion at the facility. And in the mix of that was an 8-minute call to Ron Kind’s Washington D.C. office.”

Kind’s office did forward an anonymous complaint about the hospital to the VA Inspector General in 2011, but the congressman did not follow up.

Kind and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, have been accused of not acting on allegations of misconduct. An official for the union that represents many of the employees at Tomah originally said she had sent “hand-delivered” memos to Kind and Feingold in 2009, but later walked back those statements.

Kind and Feingold said their offices had no record of the memo.

The memo battle became a heated campaign issue last year in a Senate election campaign that saw U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, beat Feingold.

Honl said his personal campaign to call out Kind was rekindled recently after reading that the 10-term congressman hasn’t ruled out a run for governor in 2018. The whistleblower said that would be “an absolute travesty.”

“The governor is responsible for the National Guard in the state and I just can’t imagine that someone who turned the other way while veterans are being abused and died would be responsible to veterans and active duty,” Honl said.

Kind’s office did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

The original article can be found here at Wisconsin Watchdog.

Honl: No Response from Kind

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.”

Honl said he was working closely with Sen. Johnson’s office and his staff.

But he added that all the legislators involved dropped the ball. About Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s handling of the complaints, Honl said, “Absolutely, her office dropped the ball, but I don’t want to pile on her exclusively.”

“If you don’t have members of Congress who take serious allegations seriously, then they have a responsibility as well,” he added.

I’ve said before that we need to ask questions of Ron Kind and Jennifer Shilling in addition to Tammy Baldwin, on whom most of the attention has been focused so far. In particular, Kind’s office admits it received anonymous complaints about rampant opiate prescription at the Tomah VA Medical Center as far back as 2011. 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.

Kind’s 2014 opponent, himself a veteran, also lambasted Kind for his inaction in a column that’s getting ink throughout the district.

Honl served as a secretary in the mental health service area of the Tomah VA. “From the very beginning the atmosphere of the place was simply difficult to deal with,” he said. Dr. David Houlihan, the Tomah VA chief of staff, was implacable and didn’t take complaints well, he was told.

In his time working at the Tomah VA, Honl sent four complaints up the ladder, including minor things like being told to record an employee as present who was in fact absent and recording doctors’ continuing education courses as having been taken when they hadn’t. Honl said he wasn’t comfortable with what this low level fraud could mean for how higher level fraud would be regarded by his co-workers.

The rampant prescription of opiates was the fourth complaint Honl filed after hearing from many other doctors and staff that “it was clear there was some kind of opiate problem” and that someone should investigate. He didn’t file the complaint anonymously because those complaints went directly to the facility director, which is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, Honl said.

The retaliation against Honl began within hours, with emails from co-workers copying the chain of command alleging mistakes he’d made; Honl was moved around the facility, including being told not to move around the building without asking and not being given a key to a new office he’d been moved into.

Honl exited employment at the Tomah VAMC on his own accord.