Lawmakers Concerned About Reported Problems At Wisconsin Veterans' Facilities

Dec 9, 2016

In Wisconsin, problems have surfaced at the federal VA Medical Center in Tomah and at the state-run nursing home in King. Elected leaders are working to rein in the problems.

The Tomah VA Medical Center was in the news in recent years for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug prescription practices.

WKBT-TV in La Crosse reported: "The investigation confirms that 35-year-old infantry Marine Jason Simcakoski died of a mixed drug toxicity. In the last 72 hours before Jason passed, he was given 54 doses of 13 different drugs."

Here's how Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin describes what happened to Simcakoski: "A tragic story. A sacred trust that has been broken."

Baldwin and her Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, called for inquiries into Tomah. Johnson says as a result, the facility made personnel and procedural changes.

Then last week, a new problem emerged. Hundreds of patients may have been exposed to HIV, because a dentist failed to properly sterilize instruments. Johnson calls the news "disappointing."

"This is a very regrettable instance. Let's hope that, as the director is saying, the chance of transmittal of any serious disease is extremely low," he said.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, a nursing home that the state VA runs, has also been under fire.

Marine Tim Michael says, "I could just go on and on about things that I've heard. Things like the staff not being trained properly to handle the difficult members - people who are suicidal or violent. The Waupaca sheriff's department is in there taking care of that themselves. Armed officers."

Michael spoke to a legislative committee in September about what veterans and workers at King have told him.

Navy veteran David Wedde also is a frequent visitor to the nursing home. He says most residents tell him they're pleased with their care, while others have shared concerns.

"I have been to the water fountain and seen the brown water coming out of it. I wouldn't drink it," Wedde said.

In late summer, the Capital Times uncovered food safety violations and medical errors. After hearing it all, legislators approved an audit. State VA Secretary John Scocos told them that King has nothing to hide. He pointed out that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have given it high ratings.

"We believe that caring for our veterans and their families is an honor. It is our duty to ensure that we provide the safest and best quality care to our nation's heroes," Scocos said.

However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also gave King a stern warning this year after a patient died.

Rich Hasse wonders if enough Americans are in tune with veterans’ issues. Hasse served in the Air Force for 26 years, he now works in the Veterans Service Office in Columbia County.

"We have a smaller and smaller segment of our general population that are veterans in our country these days. And of course, we have a smaller and smaller segment of our Congress that have served in the military," Hasse says.

Yet, elected leaders now seem to be paying closer attention. The state audit of the King nursing home should produce a report in spring. And Sen. Johnson is calling on the U.S. veterans affairs secretary to look into the recent problems with dental care at the Tomah medical center. Johnson says this time, reaction to complaints has been swift.