The opioid overprescription scandal at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center is the subject of three new ads from Wisconsin's two U.S. Senate candidates, with the family of a Marine veteran who died at the facility speaking out in support of Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
In a new ad that launched Wednesday, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir places blame for the overdose deaths of veterans on Baldwin, based on her office's handling of the issue.
In the ad, Vukmir sits on a stool and looks directly at the camera as she tells Baldwin she has "some nerve" to suggest Vukmir, a registered nurse, doesn't care about patients.
"You knew about the opioid crisis at the Tomah VA, and you did nothing," Vukmir says in the ad. "A veteran died. You offered taxpayer dollars in exchange for silence and hired Hillary Clinton's lawyer to cover it up. I've spent my life helping patients. You've spent yours playing politics, and it cost veterans their lives."
Baldwin drew scrutiny in 2015 after reports indicated her office responded slowly to complaints that patients at the veterans health center had been prescribed large amounts of opioids.
A staffer, fired from her office, later alleged a political cover-up. Complaints filed over the firing and the office's handling of the issue were dismissed by Senate ethics panels, and Baldwin said she wished her office had done more to follow up on complaints it received from a whistleblower.
On Thursday, Baldwin's campaign released two ads featuring the parents and widow of Jason Simcakoski, a Marine veteran who died of an overdose at the Tomah VA in 2014.
In one ad, Simcakoski's parents, Marv and Linda, remember their son's time in the Marines and talk about the injury for which he'd sought treatment at the VA.
“They gave him way too much meds. When I confronted the doctor, she told me that I may know how to pound nails and build houses, but I don’t know anything about taking care of my son," Marv Simcakoski says in the ad.
Linda Simcakoski describes Baldwin as a "good person" and says she wants the ads attacking her record on veterans to stop.
In a second ad, Simcakoski's widow, Heather, talks about meeting her husband in the Marine Corps, and how he changed after being prescribed a cocktail of narcotics at Tomah.
“I believe that you love somebody like that one time. And I felt like that was taken from me. No other family should ever have to go through what we went through," Heather Simcakoski says in the ad.
Heather Simcakoski says her family has worked with Baldwin to pass legislation in Jason's honor that requires VA employees prescribing opioids to be better trained and to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
"When I see these attack ads against Tammy Baldwin, using Jason’s death, I think it’s shameful," she says.
In response to the ad, Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward again accused Baldwin of putting politics ahead of veterans.
"Senator Baldwin ignored a report about the opioid crisis at the Tomah VA for months, offered her aide a taxpayer funded five-figure settlement in exchange for their silence and hired Hillary Clinton's lawyer to cover it up. If she genuinely cares about our veterans why did she go to such great lengths to cover up the truth?" Ward said in a statement.