Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in Hot Seat Over VA Scandal

Last year, reports began surfacing of major abuses at the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) center in the city of Tomah, Wisconsin, involving the issuance of numerous prescriptions for massive doses of opioid pain killers. The abuses eventually resulted in the death from overdose of a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran, Jason Simcakoski.

He was receiving a cocktail of 15 different prescription drugs (including Suboxone, intended to help combat addiction to opiates) when he died in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

The inspector general (IG) of the VA conducted an investigation and issued a report on the VA’s protocols for prescribing such painkillers, focusing on one psychiatrist in particular at the center: David Houlihan. He had acquired the nickname “Candy Man” for his easy distribution of narcotics. To give an idea of the scale of the abuse reported: in 2004, the year before Houlihan became chief of staff at the hospital, the Tomah facility dispensed roughly 50,000 oxycodone pills; in 2012, the number was 712,000, despite the fact that the number of patients served had actually declined.

In March of 2014, the IG found that Houlihan had prescribed the equivalent of 25,000 milligrams of morphine to each of the 128 patients he saw in 21012. Pain-management physicians who examined the records for the IG were particularly perturbed that a psychiatrist, responsible for mental, not physical, disorders, had been prescribing so many painkillers.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) had received a copy of that report as long ago as August 2014. Ryan Honl, a Gulf War veteran and West Point graduate who had been employed as secretary of the psychiatric ward, tried for months to get Senator Baldwin to do something about the report, conducting interviews with several of the senator’s staffers.

Finally, in desperation, he leaked the story in January to USA Today. Numerous other news sources picked it up in that paper’s wake.

Suddenly, Senator Baldwin began to demand hearings about the matter. She has been widely criticized for her dilatoriness in the tragic affair.

The scandal has not died down, and Baldwin has come under increasing heat for having stonewalled Honl’s requests for so long. Baldwin has tried to shunt the blame to staffers, who she said had held on to the report and not informed her of it. Yesterday, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice reported that Baldwin has fired Marquette Baylor, her deputy state director and chief of Baldwin’s Milwaukee office. He reported that Baylor received a cash payout as part of a severance package, in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement concerning the entire matter.

Honl, who alleges that he was harassed at the Tomah facility and ultimately driven from his job last October, expressed his dissatisfaction with the arrangement in a Sunday interview:

I get run out of my job and she gets a golden parachute for [expletive] veterans?

Honl says that Baylor is just one of several Baldwin staffers who mishandled the matter and should be let go. He said that he talked with Baylor for two hours in late November about the problems at the Tomah medical center, and that the Baldwin aide discouraged him from going public with his concerns, saying that doing so might get her and others fired.

The firing comes in the wake of an op-ed piece published under Baldwin’s name in most of the state’s major newspapers apologizing for her inaction in the affair:

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 [Honl's] belief that the report's conclusion fell short, but I also share his commitment to exposing problems at the VA and working on solutions.

Just one of many unanswered questions concerning this matter is how Senator Baldwin received a copy of the IG’s report, but no other Wisconsin legislator did, including Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI), in whose district Tomah is located.

Far from putting the matter to rest, Baylor’s termination and the op-ed have doubled the criticism being heaped upon the first-term senator.