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An All-Too-Easily Forgotten Veterans Scandal in Wisconsin Resurfaces

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

An All-Too-Easily Forgotten Veterans Scandal in Wisconsin Resurfaces

Concerned Veterans for America is launching an advertising campaign reminding Wisconsinites about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s failure to address an opioid over-prescription scandal at the Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center in 2015.

The story faded from the headlines, but represented the sort of scandal a senator dreads:

Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office received an inspection report last summer detailing high amounts of opiates prescribed at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, but there is no indication her office took action on the findings until last week, when she called for an investigation after a news report revealed a veteran died from an overdose at the facility.

The report by the VA inspector general, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY, noted that two practitioners at the center were among the highest prescribers of opiates in a multistate region — at “considerable variance” compared with most opioid prescribers. That, the report said, raised “potentially serious concerns.”

A whistleblower who learned in November that Baldwin had had a copy for months and hadn’t acted, repeatedly emailed her office asking that she do something to help the veterans at the center, according to copies of the emails obtained by USA TODAY.

In them the whistleblower — former Tomah VA employee Ryan Honl — asked that Baldwin call for an investigation, that she push colleagues on the Veterans Affairs committee to take action, and that she help bring the issues in the report to public attention. The report had not been made public, but Baldwin’s office received a copy in August…

Honl, a Gulf War vet and West Point graduate who left the Tomah facility in October, said in an interview Monday he believes Baldwin’s inaction after receiving the report is a “travesty.”

If that sounds indefensible… well, it is:

Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Friday she is disciplining her chief of staff and two other aides for failing to take appropriate action on complaints about improper care of veterans at the Veterans Affairs’ medical center in Tomah where a veteran died in August.

In an interview Friday, the Madison Democrat said that at every level, her office made mistakes in handling an inspection report, which found “serious concerns” about “unusually high” opiate-prescription rates in Tomah. She said subsequent pleas from a whistleblower also were mishandled.

As a result, Baldwin said, she is fining her chief of staff, demoting the director of her Wisconsin offices, reassigning a veterans’-outreach staffer and looking for a new aide in Milwaukee.

“Mistakes were made, and I’m taking the action that I need to assure the people of Wisconsin that we are not going to make these mistakes again, and I’ll renew my reputation for excellent casework,” she told USA TODAY.

Concerned Veterans for America is backing the Veterans Community Care and Access Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona, which would expand veterans’ opportunities to seek out care from private hospitals. The legislation is also supported by the American Legion and AMVETS, and the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee is expected to consider the legislation tomorrow.

One of the provisions of the bill would make the VA responsible for coordinating the prescription of opioids, which would be directed to VA pharmacies for dispensing, except in the case of a prior authorization or when the provider determines there is an immediate medical need for the prescription.

“We plan to make veterans health care a major issue this year as part of our long-term campaign to reform the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) delivers care to our veterans,” said CVA Executive Director Dan Caldwell. “Part of this effort includes highlighting when elected officials like Senator Tammy Baldwin fail to ensure that the veterans they represent are being properly served by the VA. Senator Baldwin put Wisconsin veterans in danger when she failed to act on reports of serious misconduct at the Tomah VA. In order to ensure that veterans in Wisconsin aren’t trapped in failing VA hospitals like the one in Tomah, Senator Baldwin needs to step up and support legislation that offers real health choice for veterans at the VA.”

Concerned Veterans for America is one of the groups that is part of the Koch Seminar Network, and Baldwin is one of the group’s top targets in the 2018 cycle.

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