Tags: VA Scandal | VA | Tomah | Wisconsin | Candy Land | Rep. Ron Kind | Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Rep. Ron Kind Knew About Tomah 'Candy Land' VA Abuse in 2011

By    |   Thursday, 23 April 2015 05:47 PM

The abuse scandal that has rocked the Tomah, Wisconsin, Veterans Affairs Medical Center is marked by a long line of governmental failures.

The failures of follow-through in Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin's office are well documented, as are missed opportunities and miscommunications in Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's office.

But comparatively little has been said about U.S. Rep. Ron Kind's one-and-done handling of an anonymous complaint sent to his office years before three patients died and the hospital, which had earned the name "Candy Land" due to allegations that staff were prescribing painkillers like candy, became the center of a national investigation.

A story last month by Gannett Wisconsin notes the Democrat from La Crosse forwarded a whistleblower complaint about over-prescribing of narcotics at the Tomah VA in September 2011, but it appears Kind never followed up.

It turns out Kind merely sent the letter on to a VA inspector general hotline, something anyone could have done.

"Dear VA General:

"I received the attached anonymous complaint from a constituent concerning Dr. David Houlihan at VA Tomah. I have no further information to provide and I am forwarding this complaint to your office for your review," Kind wrote in a note dated Sept. 29, 2011.

An official in Kind's office said the congressman's forwarding of the anonymous letter in part led to the inspector general's eventual examination of reports of over-prescribing of opiates at VA hospitals across the country. That report was not made public.

Representatives from the inspector general's office did not return a request for comment.

It is clear that Kind, whose district includes Tomah, did not follow up with the inspector general's office.

Peter Knudsen, the congressman's spokesman, offered a politically cautious answer when asked in January by the Center for Investigative Reporting what Kind had done since. He said Kind was "disappointed that it's taken so long" for any action, but "he is in contact with officials at the VA and also people with knowledge of the situation in Tomah."

Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained a copy of the anonymous complaint sent to Kind. It is both alarming and an urgent call for help.

"Dear Congressman,

"I am appealing to you for some help on a sensitive matter. This concerns the Tomah veterans hospital and I prefer to remain anonymous because the party involved retaliates," the complaint began.

The source, an employee at the medical center, refers to Dr. David Houlihan, who up until recently was in charge of the facility. Houlihan has been described by whistleblowers as a bully who retaliated against anyone who made trouble.

"Some of his patients are drug abusers and display drug seeking behavior," the employee wrote.

"Numerous employees — doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants — are so frustrated with his prescribing practices and the effects it has on the veterans that they just quit because their complaints go nowhere."

It appears this complaint, like the pleas of other whistleblowers like former Tomah VA center employee Ryan Honl, went nowhere fast with the VA and some members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation. Honl has said he encountered problems getting through to the legislative offices of Baldwin, Kind, and Johnson, although Baldwin and her staff appear to have done nothing with the information for months.

Honl, a Gulf War veteran, quit his job at the medical center shortly after starting because of the abuses he witnessed. In receiving a Whistleblower of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Honl told the ceremony's attendees about another whistleblower — Christopher Kirkpatrick, a 38-year-old clinical psychologist at the Tomah hospital.

Kirkpatrick committed suicide after being fired from the VA center. He had long complained about overly drugged patients, and had been reprimanded for doing so.

Kind has made the rounds in recent months declaring his disdain about the scandal.

"I'm really mad as hell and upset that we're hearing reports about veterans not receiving care," he told the La Crosse Tribune in a recent interview.

This week, the congressman introduced a bill in the House that would prohibit inspectors general in the federal government from publicly withholding the findings of their investigations.

"We could have taken much sooner action if we had a little bit more candidness about all this," Kind said in a recent interview.

M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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The abuse scandal that has rocked the Tomah, Wisconson, Veterans Affairs Medical Center is marked by a long line of governmental failures.
VA, Tomah, Wisconsin, Candy Land, Rep. Ron Kind, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, painkillers, Veterans Affairs
Thursday, 23 April 2015 05:47 PM
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