A whistleblower at the embattled Tomah VA Medical Center emerged in last year’s campaign as a blistering voice faulting former Sen. Russ Feingold’s oversight of the center, where failures in care for veterans was found to have contributed to their deaths.
Now Ryan Honl says he’s gunning for another Democratic politician he feels failed to respond to red flags at Tomah: U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Madison, who’s seeking re-election next fall.
“My unfinished business is seeing Tammy Baldwin ... head to the private sector like Russ Feingold,” Honl said in an interview last week.
Wisconsin Republicans have signaled they’ll keep hammering Baldwin during the 2018 campaign for what the party describes as her failure to act promptly after receiving a Department of Veterans Affairs report in 2014 citing problems with over-prescription of opioid drugs to veterans at Tomah.
Baldwin’s campaign responded to the attacks with a statement saying “partisan special interests are now trying to use the tragic death of a veteran for political gain.”
That’s referring to Jason Simcakoski, a U.S. Marine whose death at Tomah later was found to be linked to deficiencies in care he received there.
“No matter the attack, Senator Baldwin will continue to fight to bring reforms that ensure that our veterans receive the timely and high-quality care they have earned,” Baldwin’s campaign manager, Scott Spector, said in the statement.
Republicans have found a uniquely potent ally in Honl, who said he’s not yet sure what role he might play in the campaign. In 2016 he spoke out in interviews and cut an anti-Feingold ad for Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch Brothers-funded super PAC that helped Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh retain his seat after having fallen behind in polls. Feingold, meanwhile, strongly denied the substance of the ad.
Honl now says he’s focusing on Baldwin and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse. Honl says he faults both for what he describes as playing political damage control instead of focusing on fixing the issues at Tomah.
“They’ve been pushing out bills ... and not accepting their failures,” Honl said.
Last year Honl briefly mulled running against Kind before deciding against it. Honl said he’s not ruling out a run in 2018, though he said he’s leaning against it.
In recent years, various groups have pointed fingers at Baldwin, Kind, Feingold and Johnson for not responding to problems at Tomah.
Whoever bears the blame, there is consensus that the fallout has been lethal.
A former psychologist at Tomah, Christopher Kirkpatrick, committed suicide in 2009 after being fired when he raised concerns about its treatment of veterans.
In 2014, Simcakoski, of Stevens Point, died at the facility. A VA report later found deficiencies in care at Tomah contributed to Simcakoski’s death from “mixed drug toxicity” after he took 13 prescribed medications.
Also in 2014, Baldwin’s office received a VA inspector general’s report of “multiple allegations made by a series of complainants” about Tomah. It found no proof of wrongdoing, but cited “potentially serious concerns” with over-prescription of opioid drugs to veterans at Tomah — as well as with a pervasive fear of retaliation among the facility’s staff for questioning any of its practices.
Five months later, media reports detailed the inspector general’s report as well as allegations by current and former staffers. Baldwin initially defended, but also apologized, for her response, acknowledging she could have done more to force action.
Baldwin has taken further steps since. She initiated a staff shake-up, firing one staffer and cutting the pay of at least two others, including her chief of staff.
The fired staffer, Marquette Baylor, filed one of three complaints with Senate ethics panel that questioned her firing and Baldwin’s handling of Tomah. All three were dismissed by the panel as lacking merit.
Baldwin also authored a bill named for Simcakoski that strengthens opioid prescription guidelines for VA care providers. The changes proposed in the bill were signed into law last year by former President Barack Obama.
Spector noted Simcakoski’s family supported Baldwin in crafting the legislation.
“Tammy was honored to work alongside the Simcakoski family to pass the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, which has brought real reforms to Tomah and VAs across the country,” Spector said.
Kind’s campaign declined to respond.
Honl said he knows some will dismiss him as a partisan operative for singling out Democrats for blame for Tomah.
Honl has said his brief stint at Tomah influenced the shift of his political views from Democratic to a libertarian Republican. He also has become an advocate for providing veterans more options for health care outside the VA system.
But he insists his involvement in recent campaigns has nothing to do with partisanship — and everything to do with what he describes as the failures of a few elected officials.
“I’m not gonna do ads for just any Republican,” Honl said. “For me, it’s about those individuals.”