VA Plan To Reform Troubled Tomah Hospital Barely Mentions Veterans

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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A “100-day plan” to regain the trust of veterans at the severely troubled Tomah, Wisconsin, Department of Veterans Affairs hospital calls for praising its employees more, increasing employee diversity and establishing an Employee Wellness Center.

Veterans do not figure prominently in the plan, which primarily consists of favors for employees and their union. The hospital has been forced to “rebuild trust” with veterans after years of its staff doping patients into zombies rather than treating them.

The blueprint adds monthly “listening sessions” to air employee gripes, but only twice-a-year town halls for veterans to give feedback on the quality of care they received and to make suggestions.

It says nothing about what VA officials believe caused veterans’ lack of trust in the facility. The lack of understanding of the problem seems to ensure the fix will fail, observers said.

Under the heading “restoring trust,” the bulk of the plan is devoted to doing more “union partnering.” It will give employees more “praise” and create a “diversity committee.”

The four-page plan then adds a shorter section on restoring trust by “improving the veteran experience.” In addition to the twice-a-year veterans meetings — which are also open to non-veteran “stakeholders,” and unlike the employee meetings are not termed “listening” sessions — VA officials will “continue to develop informational and educational articles for Veterans,” and three other minor points.

The most significant patient-centered action involves exploring “expansion of operating hours,” which would also create more hours for staff.

Tomah VA spokesman Matthew Gowan pointed to investigations and media stories — not the underlying conduct discovered or vets’ first-hand experience — as a primary source of veterans’ mistrust.

“Tomah VA realizes that recent investigations and media stories covering high profile incidents over the past year have contributed to a lack of trust within the medical center and the community,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“This is a visible effort to move forward in a positive manner for the betterment of patient care and employee satisfaction,” he said, adding that happier employees is expected to lead to happier vets.

“Each strategy has a purpose and has been requested by the hospital stakeholders,” he said.

The plan was written by hospital leadership following “more than 40 Listening Sessions with employees in the past six months.” He did not say how many sessions with veterans had been held, but said that in addition to the semi-annual veteran town halls in the plan, the hospital has weekly office hours for vets to meet with its director.

Multiple congressional investigations, inspector general reports and media exposes from across the ideological spectrum have shown that lack of praise for Tomah employees isn’t the cause of the facility’s problems.

Dangerous combinations of downer drugs were shoved down the throats of veterans so that they were sedated, rather than enabled to work through their problems with physical and mental therapy. Drugs were routinely prescribed to known addicts, and drugs sold on the street in Wisconsin could often be traced back to the VA. Career low-level bureaucrats at the VA looked the other way, while a few brand new employees who were shocked at the way the hospital ran were pushed out when they raised objections. The 100-day vision doesn’t mention opiates.

Even after the plan’s roll-out, the facility has demonstrated that apathy by low-level employees, misleading official spin by image-cultivating spokesmen, union rules blocking discipline, and gross mismanagement continue to plague Tomah, not a lack of money or clout for employees.

In November, a Tomah nurse’s aide allegedly pushed a patient repeatedly, while another nurse’s aide watched and did nothing to stop it, the LaCrosse Tribune reported. Police confirmed the incident occurred and was severe enough that the employee was charged with disorderly conduct. Yet weeks later, the department had been unable to establish the facts, saying there was a “follow-up investigation by administration and union officials,” the Tribune reported December 1.

Gowan initially said “it would obviously be disingenuous of me to say nothing happened,” but the VA declined to say when asked by TheDCNF if the employee had been fired or otherwise disciplined.

Investigations have also documented that Tomah’s problems stem from poor hiring choices, putting employee convenience over veteran health, and covering up for and refusing to discipline bad workers at all levels.

One of the most recently hired doctors – brought on around the time the plan was being drafted – is Eileen Gavin, who only months prior was found by the state medical examining board to have engaged in unprofessional conduct related to patient health records, and to have improperly funneled pain medication to a friend. Those are the same issues the VA is trying to put behind it, the former nationally and the latter at Tomah specifically.

Former Tomah Chief of Staff David Houlihan, reportedly known to veterans as the “Candy Man” because of his penchant for throwing opiates at every problem, came to Wisconsin after being reprimanded by Iowa’s board of medical examiners. Rather than firing the hospital director during the scandals, the board entered into a secret settlement with him.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the Associated Press that veterans had lost “trust” in Tomah because of bad treatment by its staff, and that a second crisis was other employees’ failure to stop bad apples.

“Clearly, particularly as it relates to the first crisis, there is eroded trust in the VA facility here in Tomah,” Gibson told AP. “I don’t expect anybody to give that trust back. I expect that we’re going to have to earn it back.”

Employees already have time dedicated to their own morale. Video shows Tomah employees, mostly middle-aged women, spending October 30 crawling on the floor pretending to be hippopotamuses.

Vets have been clear about why they don’t trust the Tomah VA, even paying to erect a billboard nearby saying “VA is lying, veterans are dying.” The VA, they said, “is currently operated for the profit and luxury of VA employees.”

The VA employee union — its numbers boosted by the fact VA has more civil servants than any other federal civilian agency — has been a primary driver in making employees a more powerful constituency within the VA.

On Thursday, the union sent an email to members saying “EMERGENCY: VA Reprimand and Bonus Recoupment Bill Moving to Senate Floor,” asking them to pressure Congress to make sure that under no circumstances could discretionary bonuses for exemplary service be diminished.

The union also encouraged its members to push Congress to change the law so that employees with marks on their records indicating that they may pose a danger to patients should have them automatically removed from their file after a time. It has not publicly described the mismanagement of Tomah and the veterans exposed to opiate and benzo toxicity there as an “emergency.”

Neither of Wisconsin’s senators, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin, responded to requests from TheDCNF for comment on the plan.

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