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U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin: "We can do better for Wisconsin Veterans"

Our men and women in uniform have made incredible sacrifices on our behalf and we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that when they return home, our veterans and their families are provided the care and support they need. Problems at our Tomah VA Medical Center have been in the news recently, so I wanted to take this opportunity let people know about my efforts to address the problems and put solutions in place for our Wisconsin veterans.

When my office was first contacted by a constituent last March with concerns about the Tomah VA we immediately brought those concerns to the Tomah VA and then to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington D.C., and the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG).  I am very upset by the fact that when we took action to bring forward our constituent’s concerns, the Tomah VA, its regional parent organization, the VA Great Lakes Health Care System, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, were not forthcoming that an OIG investigation was initiated by others in 2011. It is also extremely troubling that they did not let us know the OIG report had been concluded in March 2014. In fact, we were not provided a copy until the end of August, five months after our initial inquiries and five months after the report was concluded in March.

Since the OIG failed to release the report publically, our office had to initiate a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to obtain a copy. When we finally received a copy of the report at the end of August, we immediately took action to provide it to the constituent who had brought concerns to us. As a result of taking this action to provide it to our constituent, it was then shared with other whistleblowers and the media.

Not only were we very disturbed with the OIG’s findings, but we were also concerned that the report concluded there was no wrongdoing at the medical facility. In the fall, as we weighed next steps and additional concerns about problems at the Tomah VA were brought to our attention, we should have done a better job listening to and communicating with another constituent with whom we were working on problems at the VA. I take full responsibility for any mistakes we made because I not only share his belief that the report’s conclusion fell short, but I also share his commitment to exposing problems at the VA and working on solutions.

That is precisely why I have worked on this issue over the last year and why I am pleased that several weeks ago, the OIG report we shared with a constituent became the subject of an investigative media report which also revealed larger issues at the Tomah VA that were not addressed in the March OIG report. In response to the larger issues exposed in that media report, concerns brought to my attention by constituents and whistleblowers, and the fact that the March OIG report was limited in focus and was not a thorough investigation, I called for VA Secretary Robert McDonald to take immediate action to conduct a new, comprehensive investigation into the operation of the Tomah VA.

After speaking with Secretary McDonald last week, I am pleased that the VA has announced a new investigation into Tomah VA prescribing practices and abuse of administrative authority. While I wish that this action had been taken much sooner, the fact is the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs is now actively reviewing allegations of retaliatory behavior and over-medication at the Tomah VA. The Chief of Staff of the Tomah VA has also been temporarily reassigned and will not be seeing patients or prescribing medication. These are important steps in the right direction that are a direct result of the people I work for in Wisconsin taking action, bringing their concerns to my office, and letting their voice be heard.

I can assure you that I will closely monitor the investigation’s progress and work to ensure that its scope and resulting actions will achieve and maintain the goal of providing the timely, highest-quality care to our Wisconsin veterans. In addition, this week I called on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to hold a hearing to address the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to stop improper opioid prescribing practices and associated abuse of administrative authority at the Tomah VA Medical Center. 

As your United States Senator I am committed to working hard every day to keep our promise to our veterans and their families. That is why I look forward to continuing my work on solutions to the many problems the VA faces here in Wisconsin and across America, getting the job done to make sure our veterans receive the quality care they have earned and deserve.

This editorial piece has appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Capital Times, Green Bay Press Gazette, Appleton Post Crescent, Wausau Daily Herald, Stevens Point Journal, Sheboygan Press, Oshkosh Northwestern, Fond du Lac Reporter, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Marshfield News-Herald, and the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune.