Whistleblowers, families ask for accountability at Tomah VA

A pair of U.S. House and Senate committees held a joint field hearing Monday over accusations that the Tomah VA Medical Center over-prescribed painkillers to patients and created a retaliatory environment at the facility. 

The Tomah VA came under scrutiny in January following reports that physicians were prescribing more painkillers than most VA hospitals and employees who spoke out were subjected to intimidation. The hospital is under investigation by the VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Eight politicians, including Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin and Congressman Kind listened to about three hours of testimony during the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives hearing.

Senator Johnson said the hearing is the first step and “the investigation is far from over.”

“The problems at the Tomah VA are both sobering and have had tragic consequences,” Senator Baldwin said.

Senator Baldwin said the problem has grown into a weed of addiction and the impact is being seen beyond the walls of the VA.

“Ripples are indeed being felt across America,” Senator Baldwin said.

It was a packed room at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah. They had to open up the room dividers and expand because so many people wanted to be in attendance and support those who have blown the whistle on the Tomah VA, as well as those looking for answers as to why certain accusations have been made.

Noelle Johnson, a former pharmacist at the Tomah VA, spoke at the hearing.

“Dr. Houlihan is a dangerous man. What makes him dangerous is his lack of respect for prescribing his medications,” Johnson said.

She witnessed the unsafe practice of prescribing opioids, she said, and voiced her opinion. Johnson believes she was fired from her job because she blew a whistle and raised concerns.

Ryan Honl, a former employee and former patient of the Tomah VA, also spoke at the hearing. He said he raised concerns that he and his coworkers had at the Tomah VA.

“I just wish the whistle I blew would resurrect the people who have died due to the mistreatment,” Honl said.

Marvin Simcakoski also spoke at the hearing. His son, 35-year-old Jason Simcakoski, died of a drug overdose while at the Tomah VA in August 2014.

He said his son Jason was being treated for a pain medication addiction.

“Everyone involved in his death should be held responsible,” Simcakoski said.

Jason’s wife Heather Simcakoski also spoke. She said his personality changed and he would slur words and sleep a lot after being treated. Other times he would act erratic when on medication, she testified.

“I truly believe he would be here today with the proper treatment,” Heather said.  

Candice Delis, a daughter of a 74-year-old veteran who died after complications from a stroke in January 2015, also spoke at the hearing.

She made note that her father’s case was not related to mediation, but spoke to a large issue at the Tomah VA.

In her testimony, Delis stated she and her mother took her father to the Tomah VA and Delis thought he might have suffered a stroke because he was leaning to one side in the chair.

Delis said a doctor eventually told them her father suffered a massive stroke and needed to be transferred to a hospital in La Crosse.

Delis said, “I want to be proud to be an American again but without drastic change at the Tomah VA” she wasn’t sure if that would be possible.

“These stories are heartbreaking,” Senator Johnson said. “I want to thank all of the witnesses for coming forward. It’s not easy to tell your story. It’s not easy to listen to. I hope the public hears this. I hope Wisconsin hears this. I hope the VA hears this.”

At the end of the hearing for the first panel, the lawmakers and the public stood and applauded those who spoke. They finished at about 3 p.m. Then the second panel, of members of the Department of Veterans Affairs spoke.

Interim VA Undersecretary for Health Carolyn Clancy said the VA is committed to using the information and testimonies provided at the hearing to improve now and in the future. Clancy said they are not waiting for the outcome of investigations to make changes.

“We realize we have to regain trust,” Clancy said, emphasizing that regaining veterans trust should come first.

Clancy said the VA also has to regain the public’s trust and the front-line employees at the Tomah VA.

The hearing ended at about 4:10 p.m.

Governor Scott Walker also commented on the VA investigation while at an event in Plover. He said all veterans deserve the best care possible after serving our country.

“At the federal level, the VA is just one of the many areas that we’ve got to ensure that whether it’s through our VA hospitals and clinics or it’s some other means to provide every veteran with the best possible health care,” Governor Walker said. “That is a sacred honor in terms of what they have done for us and we need to make sure that commitment is never broken.”