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Families ask Congress for accountability at Tomah VA
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Five members of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, as well as other members of Congress, heard testimony March 30  about problems at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center — problems that led to the deaths of patients.

“My dad was entitled to competent care and the VA had a duty to provide it,” said Candice Delis, whose father died of a stroke that went untreated for hours as he waited at the Tomah VA urgent care clinic. “I wouldn’t be here today if the VA had fulfilled its duty.”

Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs heard testimony from   Delis of Auburndale, Wis., as well as Ryan Honl, a former Tomah VA employee who raised questions about treatment at the facility;  Noelle Johnson, a former pharmacist at the Tomah VA; Heather Simcakoski and Marvin Simcakoski of Stevens Point, Wis., wife and father, respectively, of a young veteran who died; John Daigh, the assistant inspector general for health care inspections at the VA Office of Inspector General; Alan Mallinger, a senior physician with the VA OIG Office of Healthcare Inspections; Carolyn Clancy, the interim undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Renee Oshinski, a VA health care official, and Mario V. DeSanctis, director of the Tomah VA Medical Center.

Members of Congress at the hearing were Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) , chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security on Governmental Affairs (HSGAC), Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a member of HSGAC, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), members of HVAC, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Sen. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who represent many veterans who seek treatment at the Tomah VAMC.

“It’s hard to tell these stories,” said Johnson. “It’s hard to hear them.”

Delis told how her father, veteran Thomas Baer, languished for hours showing symptoms of stroke while the Tomah VA urgent care clinic failed to test for stroke or treat for it. Eventually, the facility sent Baer to a hospital in La Crosse — by ambulance, rather than helicopter — rather than to a nearer hospital. She said she cannot get explanations from VA. “No one will answer our questions,” she said.

Marvin Simcakoski, whose son, Jason, died of “mixed drug toxicity” after being prescribed more than a dozen different drugs by the Tomah VA, said he was rebuffed by the physician treating his son during his final days. “She said I might know how to pound nails and build houses, but I don’t know anything about taking care of my son,” he said.

“Today’s witness testimony further underscores the tragedy that has occurred at Tomah and why we must be vigilant to ensure it can never happen again,” said Kind. “This field hearing was vital as we get to the bottom of the allegations at Tomah. As the investigations continue, we owe it to all our veterans and their families to take the necessary action to provide them with the best care possible.

“That’s why I’ve introduced the Veterans Pain Management Improvement Act and I will continue working to make sure every veteran receives the quality health care they deserve here at home and across the nation.”

Last week, Kind introduced the bipartisan Veterans Pain Management Improvement Act, which would establish a pain management oversight board within each Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) comprised of health care professionals and clinical patients and/or family members of a clinical patient.