A former Department of Veterans Affairs employee, who blew the whistle on rampant overmedication at one of the agency’s Wisconsin hospitals, got the chance to meet President Barack Obama today as the president descended from Air Force One and walked across the tarmac in La Crosse.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m the Tomah VA whistleblower who exposed patient deaths and wrongdoing,” said Ryan Honl, a Gulf War veteran. He quit his job as a secretary in the hospital’s mental health department last fall after two months, fed up with what he considered runaway narcotic prescriptions and abuse of administrative authority at the facility.
Those allegations drew national attention in January, after Honl contacted The Center for Investigative Reporting, which investigated the situation and produced stories that ran on the Web, in several newspapers and on NBC.
Since then, activity in Washington has been feverish. Congressional hearings have been held, and at least six pieces of legislation have been introduced in Washington to try to prevent runaway narcotic prescriptions in the future, including the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, which is named for a Marine Corps veteran who died of an overdose in the Tomah VA’s psychiatric ward.
Obama traveled to the Badger State on Thursday to promote an initiative to extend federal overtime protections to higher-wage workers. Honl had been invited to attend the president’s arrival by the local Democratic congressman, Rep. Ron Kind.
Instead of merely thanking Obama, Honl said he used the access to the press for something more: higher accountability at the VA, which had allowed problems at its Tomah hospital to continue unchecked for years.
“He was shaking hands with the kids and stuff, you know, small talk, and then he got to me and I think it put him off balance a little bit,” Honl said.
He asked the president to appoint a new inspector general from outside of the VA, he said, rather than promote a new agency watchdog from within. Earlier this week, the VA’s acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, announced that he was resigning after 40 VA whistleblowers and 10 U.S. senators wrote to Obama asking that he be replaced.
“If they just pick someone new from inside the agency, it will be business as usual and the problems will continue,” Honl said.
According to Honl, Obama responded that the secretary of veterans affairs, Robert McDonald, “had it covered.” Calls to the White House press office and the VA were not immediately returned.
After CIR revealed problems at the Tomah VA in January, the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan, was removed from his job and placed on leave pending an internal VA investigation.
In March, Houlihan’s boss, hospital Director Mario DeSanctis, also was removed from his position after an internal VA investigation found that patients in Tomah were 2.5 times more likely than the national average to receive high doses of opiates.
But six months after the scandal broke, both Houlihan and DeSanctis remain on the agency payroll and, after meeting Obama, Honl said he remains concerned that either could return to their posts once public attention falls away.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.