- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Sen. Tammy Baldwin has asked for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate three deaths and reports of prescription drug abuse at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Baldwin - who said last month she accepts responsibility for not acting sooner in the matter - wrote Thursday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that the seriousness of the allegations warrant a review by a law enforcement agency independent from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The medical center, which came under scrutiny last month when former employees and the families of former patients alleged that doctors overprescribed narcotics, is already being investigated by the VA Office of the Inspector General and the VA’s Secretary of Health.

Baldwin’s letter lists the deaths of Thomas Baer, 74, of Marshfield, last month; Jason Simcakoski, 35, of Stevens Point in 2014; and Jacob Ward, 27, of Milwaukee in 2013.

Baer’s daughter, Candace Baer Delis, said she believes Baldwin is calling for the investigation to improve her image.

“I think it’s just damage control,” she said. “She’s trying to stop the bleed on a very open wound.”

Former Tomah employees and families of former patients criticized Baldwin last month, saying she sat on a VA report that probed earlier allegations against the hospital. Baldwin received the report in August and shared it with a constituent who asked about the investigation earlier that year.

The report was not shared outside the VA because it contained classified information, VA Office of the Inspector General Cathy Gromek said last week. The VA does not require the publication of all reports. The Office of the Inspector General published a redacted version of the report on its website last week, because it generated public interest, Gromek said.

Hospital spokeswoman Laura Bishop declined to comment Friday on the correspondence, but she said the hospital is working with Baldwin to ensure the hospital provides “safe, high quality care.”

Representatives from the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baldwin, in her letter, also calls for the Department of Justice to probe law enforcement conduct at the hospital.

Ryan Honl, a former secretary at the hospital, said he was pleased to see Baldwin call the Tomah VA law enforcement into question. Honl said former co-workers filed a complaint against him this month, four months after he left his job, saying he exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Honl asked Wisconsin representatives in Washington, D.C. to call for an investigation.

“All three elected officials dropped the ball on this, but they’re well on their way to picking it up,” Honl said of Baldwin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, and Democratic Rep. Ron Kind.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson.

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