Ron Johnson holds hearing and subpoenas Tomah VA records

Green Bay Gazette
Donovan Slack
April 30, 2015

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, issued his first subpoena Wednesday demanding the Veterans Affairs inspector general turn over records related to an investigation of treatment at the VA medical center in Tomah, Wis.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, signed off on the subpoena demanding the records by May 13.

The inspector general conducted a 2-1/2 year probe of opiate prescription rates and a culture of fear and retaliation at the Tomah facility but did not publicly release the findings last year. Five months later, Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski, 35, died from mixed drug toxicity as an inpatient at Tomah, days after doctors agreed to add another opiate to the 14 other drugs he was prescribed.

Interim VA Inspector General Richard Griffin has refused for months to give the investigative documents to Johnson’s committee, saying they contain information that cannot be turned over under federal privacy laws, including the identities of witnesses and veteran medical records.

Johnson accused Griffin of stonewalling.

“My staff has bent over backwards, being supportive in just really giving the IG every opportunity — to redact names, I mean we’re not looking for personal information here,” he said. “We just need enough information so we can draw conclusions so we know what we’re looking at, and they just haven’t done it.”

A spokeswoman for Griffin did not say Thursday if he would comply with the subpoena but forwarded a letter he sent to Johnson last week indicating he would allow Johnson’s committee or staff members to privately review some of the documents.

“We have been working with the committee since February 2015 to provide them with responsive documents, while balancing our obligation to protect sensitive information,” spokeswoman Joanne Moffet said.

Johnson’s office has been reviewing what happened in Tomah since news reports in January revealed publicly for the first time the existence of the inspector general’s probe, its findings, and Simcakoski’s death. The probe found “unusually high” opiate prescription rates at Tomah and that pharmacists had left the facility citing concerns about it, but the inspector still concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Johnson wants to determine how he reached that conclusion and hopes the investigative file the committee is seeking with the subpoena will help. It may also include other issues that need to be addressed.

His committee held a field hearing in Tomah in March, where whistle-blowers and family members of veterans who died after treatment at the Tomah VA testified the facility has for years been a hotbed of dysfunction and mismanagement to the detriment and possibly death of veteran patients.

Johnson said in the past three months, his office has been inundated with at least 50 whistle-blowers from Wisconsin who have helped substantiate those claims and others.

“My guess is when all is said and done, we’ll probably have all the facts and we’ll probably issue some kind of report,” he said.

Multiple investigations are pending in Tomah, including by the VA, the inspector general and the Drug Enforcement Administration.