- Associated Press - Monday, March 30, 2015

TOMAH, Wis. (AP) - Members of Congress consoled whistleblowers and family members of veterans who died at a medical center in Tomah that has come under fire for poor care, and they criticized government officials who tried to defend previous investigations of the facility.

A pair of U.S. House and Senate committees heard testimony at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah first from a panel of two whistleblowers and three family members of veterans who died as a result of inadequate care at the hospital run by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The committees also grilled VA officials there on how they plan to improve and prevent future deaths.

The facility in west-central Wisconsin came under scrutiny in January following reports that physicians were prescribing more painkillers than most VA hospitals, and that employees who spoke out were subjected to intimidation. The hospital is the subject of investigations by the VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Three deaths as a result of care at the facility also prompted state representatives to call for a federal probe.

In tears, two family members testified about Jason Simcakoski, who they said died of an overdose in the hospital’s inpatient care unit last year. His father, Marvin Simcakoski, and his wife, Heather Simcakoski, said the 35-year-old Marine was never offered alternative treatments that did not include narcotics.

“They didn’t just take away a person,” Heather Simcakoski said. “They took away a hero and a husband and a father.



Sen. Ron Johnson said the testimony from the Simcakoski family and from Candace Delis, whose father died in January after experiencing slow and inadequate care at the facility, would fuel lawmakers to act.

“Your story will be used as a catalyst to enact real reform so that these deaths never have to affect another veteran’s family,” Johnson said.

But lawmakers were not clear Monday about exactly what that reform would entail.

Witnesses also called for accountability from the VA, especially for those physicians directly involved with prescribing the deadly doses of medication. Several Wisconsin lawmakers, including Johnson, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Reps. Ron Kind, Mark Pocan and Sean Duffy each said they would work to prompt solutions from VA and from Washington.

Lawmakers questioned John Daigh, VA assistant inspector general, about a 2014 report addressing concerns of overprescribing drugs and retaliatory behavior at the hospital. Daigh said those allegations were unfounded.

“We needed evidence beyond a story,” Daigh said. “And we didn’t get that.”

Daigh then closed the complaint and spoke with Mario DeSanctis, the hospital’s director. DeSanctis has since been reassigned out of the medical center.

“I think that’s what makes people angry here, people are not held accountable and they’re not fired,” Duffy said.

Veterans and family members in the conference hall loudly applauded Duffy’s comment.

Daigh said all reports from the VA Inspector General will now be posted online and shared with members of Congress. Baldwin said she had to send a Freedom of Information Act request last year to obtain the 2014 report because it had not been published.

David Houlihan, the hospital’s chief of staff has been placed on administrative leave pending the result of the investigations.

Whistleblowers Ryan Honl and Noelle Johnson, both of whom worked at the Tomah facility, spoke of the culture of fear that pervaded the staff there. Both said they wanted to see lawmakers create a system that would protect people who came forward with concerns in the future.

VA Interim Undersecretary for Health Carolyn Clancy said negative feedback can help the facility improve.

“That’s the only way we get better.”

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

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