WASHINGTON - A Congressional field hearing to look into whistle-blower reports
about prescription drug abuse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin is set for March 30th.
The hearing comes after a report, first hidden by the VA Inspector General, shows a culture of fear among employees at the center, and a high rate of prescriptions written for high-dose opiates like morphine. There are also deaths under investigation.
"That’s a sad statement on American politics and American government,” said Republican Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy.
The statistics are damning. A clinical review found Tomah patients were 2.5 times more likely than the national VA average to be prescribed high-dose opioids. Additional details show Tomah patients were prescribed benzodiazepines and opioids at the same time, nearly twice as much as other VA medical centers.
“When you have higher doses and you don’t have certain procedures and policies in place when prescribing opiates, you can have disastrous results so yes it is concerning. Especially when the community knows what is going on. When they call Tomah candy land and this one doctor the candy man it is well known that he is a prescriber of opiate drugs,“ Duffy said.
There’s a lot of finger pointing going on inside the U.S. Capitol.
The VA Office of Inspector General is accused of keeping the report on Tomah secret from the public, even hidden from the congressional committees responsible for overseeing the VA.
Several high-profile lawmakers like Senator Tammy Baldwin and Senator Ron Johnson are accused of fumbling whistle-blower reports about the problems at the Tomah VA.
“Some of the Wisconsin representatives knew what was going on and didn’t do a lot to protect our veterans. I think when you have whistle-blowers come forward and say we have problems in our VA system you need to come forward and make sure those veterans are protected. And you can’t sit back and let those stories and those reports and those whistle-blowers be pushed to the sidelines,” Duffy said.
We reached out to both Senator Baldwin and Senator Johnson and their offices are fielding our interview requests right now.
Ahead of the March 30th field hearing we’re digging through the reports and the letters written by members of congress.
“We are going to be able to hear from people on the ground with firsthand knowledge. Some of the whistle-blowers are in that area who have been asked to testify and this is important because Congress has a responsibility to make sure that we get the policy right to make sure the proper protocols of care are followed,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI).
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs tells us they hold less than 10 field hearings each year. This year Tomah is one of them and what happens at the hearing will help guide future legislative oversight efforts at VA hospitals around the country.
“I don’t think this is something that may just be unique to Tomah. I think we have got an issue throughout the entire VA system, throughout the entire healthcare system on the use of pain medication for patients. We have had other reports come out from private healthcare providers that they are wrestling with the same type of issues,” Kind said.
Lawmakers say they won’t stop investigating until they get answers about prescription drug practices at the Tomah VA, and they anticipate they’ll expose other problems, even more deaths, at the upcoming field hearing.