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Tammy Baldwin

A report commissioned for Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, found that her staff mishandled complaints related to prescription drug use at the Tomah VA hospital. 

A report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office blames her constituent services team for mishandling a report on overmedication problems at a Tomah Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, but also acknowledges that senior staff members made mistakes.

The review, done by Perkins Coie, a Seattle-based law firm, found that the Madison Democrat’s office ineffectively communicated constituent concerns about the Tomah hospital, but did not intentionally sit on the report. Baldwin’s office released a five-page summary of the findings Friday.

The constituent services team failed to take proper action in passing on complaints of painkiller overprescribing practices to senior staff members, the report said, and all staff members took too long in reacting to constituent concerns.

“The bottom line is this: Senator Baldwin’s staff took some important steps to investigate the abuses at Tomah VA, but then missed numerous chances to follow up and press for action,” the report said.

Baldwin said she accepts that her staff erred, and said her office would redouble its efforts to improve communication.

“There were missed opportunities for my office to move forward more swiftly,” she said Friday. “And I take responsibility for that.”

The review singled out Baldwin’s deputy state director of constituent services, Marquette Baylor, for missteps in communicating on the Tomah case although it did not name her. Baylor did not immediately respond to phone messages Friday. She was fired in January.

“Tomah played a role in that, but it was a much bigger issue with her role as a case work supervisor,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said others in her offices will see their pay cut and positions changed. Baldwin’s current chief of staff will take a pay cut, the acting state director in her office will change roles to lead outreach and Baldwin will hire a new state director, the senator said. The employee who managed cases involving the VA will be reassigned and a more experienced staff member will take over that role, Baldwin said.

The Tomah facility came under scrutiny in January when reports of narcotic overprescribing practices and retaliatory behaviors surfaced. The hospital is under investigation by the VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A preliminary VA report Tuesday said patients at the hospital have a higher likelihood of receiving high doses of narcotics including opioids than those at other VA hospitals. The report also found a culture of fear among employees that compromised patient care.

Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine, died of an overdose in the hospitals’ inpatient care unit in August.

The review released Friday also says Baldwin’s senior staff members believed the VA Office of the Inspector General would solve the problems at the medical center. The inspector general’s report released last year concluded there was no proof of wrongdoing and the majority of allegations against the facility were not substantiated.

“Accordingly, they did not make it a priority to independently verify the OIG’s representations that the concerns about prescription practices were being addressed,” the report says. “In retrospect, this was a mistake.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s other senator, Republican Ron Johnson, said this week that a staffer in his Oshkosh office received emails from former VA employee Ryan Honl in September who blew the whistle on the center’s prescription practices.

The staffer told Honl he would send the complaints to people working for Republicans on the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Contracting Oversight, which Democrats controlled at the time. Johnson was the panel’s ranking minority member and had appointed the Republican staffers.

Johnson said the GOP staffers never forwarded the complaints to the panel’s Democratic members.

Johnson noted that the complaints came at a tumultuous time in Congress, amid buildup to the November elections that switched control of the Senate to Republicans and Capitol staffers shuffling jobs.

Associated Press reporter Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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• Vets defend Tomah VA hospital. B3