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.

The Shocking VA Memo that Ron Kind Ignored

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.

Yesterday, the 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.

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.

Kurtz Demands Accountability

In a column in the La Crosse Tribune, Tony Kurtz goes after Congressman Ron Kind for his passivity in light of the Candyland Scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center. Kurtz writes:

On May 28, Kind said he was “mad as hell” after learning about problems at VA facilities across the nation. He said he wanted to form a blue ribbon commission to get to the bottom of the delays in providing care.

Kind said the Tomah VA only had minor issues with staff shortages. There was no mention publicly about the complaint his office received in August 2011. If, in fact, Kind was “mad as hell,” why didn’t he ask for the report about the OIG investigation into the Tomah VA?

As a veteran, all we really want is to be treated with respect and receive quality care. The vast majority of VA employees are wonderful caregivers who go the extra mile to take care of veterans.

Apparently Kind wasn’t mad as hell enough to pursue what he knew to be an ongoing issue at the Tomah VAMC. Instead he chose to issue talking points and hope the issue stayed out of headlines until after the election.

Were it not for a California-based investigative journalism outlet, would this story have ever come to light? Or would the over-medication and “drug diversions” (also known as selling prescription drugs on the street) have continued forever?

The drug diversion problem is real. Our region has serious 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 problems this has created in western Wisconsin. A Congressman with the best interests of his constituents in mind, and with an ear to the ground among the law enforcement community, would be on top of this.

This scandal is not minor – people died – and it’s not going away any time soon, especially if good, patriotic people like Kurtz keep the heat on. Kind will no doubt continue to dodge questions, inasmuch as he’s even asked them.

Kind’s office claims it received its first anonymous complaint in 2011, but he also said officials at the Tomah VA “didn’t notify me…they didn’t notify anyone,” in effect shifting attention from his own failure to pursue answers, instead offering limp platitudes, which is Kind’s specialty. Kind also said at one press conference that the Tomah VA staff “candidly admit they dropped the ball” by not falling over themselves to get the report to the almighty Kind and that those bureaucrats now know “they need to keep our offices better informed.”

If Kind is relying on the gears of a demonstrably monstrous, slow, and even dangerously inept bureaucracy to keep his office informed, he’s grossly naive about the dysfunction of government. That or he didn’t care to pursue the facts himself. Kurtz also touches on this dysfunction:

I also question why it takes two to three years to conduct an internal investigation? I have conducted Army-level investigations, and they typically take just four to six weeks, possibly 12 weeks for more complex problems. Just think about the time wasted and the lives that lost because of such delays. The OIG must streamline its investigation process and allow outside organizations to conduct these investigations in a timely manner.

Kind also “lamented allegations of a ‘culture of intimidation’ that frustrates staff members who raise issues about care.” As I commented in a previous post, these are the words of a lazy congressman who for some reason voters were scammed into re-electing – a congressman who apparently has given as much thought to the staff members being frustrated that their concerns fell on deaf ears as the health of the affected veterans. Real leaders aren’t reactive, they’re proactive for the good of – at the very least – the people they claim to care about.

Ron Kind spends a lot of time at ribbon cutting ceremonies at VFWs and American Legions. There were no photo ops at the Tomah VA.

Kurtz, a 20-year veteran who now runs a farm and small business, ran against Kind last fall. It was the most competitive congressional race in Wisconsin that year, but he still lost 43-57. One wonders what impact the revelation that Kind may have been sitting on years of complaints about the Tomah VA’s practices would’ve had on the election. The district does boast a large number of veterans, veterans who Kind has claimed to represent.

It’s a shame he didn’t care enough to get out of the Congressional Gym and find some answers.

Related:

RW: Candyland Goes Beyond Baldwin

Tomah might be in western Wisconsin, but a potentially explosive scandal at the VA Medical Center there has gotten more attention in Milwaukee than in La Crosse. There, the dispersement of prescription opiate pain medications has skyrocketed in recent years.

In addition to holding Sen. Baldwin accountable, other Democrats should be asked real questions about what they knew, when they knew, and what they did about it, because deaths have been caused by this problem.

Kind, a potential challenger for Sen. Johnson in 2016, and Shilling, a possible replacement for Kind or even a gubernatorial candidate in 2018, should be held to account. I write:

Kind and Shilling in particular are rising stars in the state’s frazzled Democratic Party. They’re rising stars because, like Baldwin, they’ve nurtured reputations as bland toers of the party line who specialize in pablum rather than action.

Kind, a possible challenger for Sen. Johnson in 2016, may want to put down the dumbbell in the Congressional gym and start writing more of those famous talking points.

Whole thing here.

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.