Monday's rare recess field hearing will focus attention on the controversy within a Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Medical Center that's become a thorny subject for both the state's senators.
Among the witnesses slated to testify at the joint congressional event in Tomah, Wis., is Ryan Honl, a former facility employee who corresponded with the offices of Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson. In both cases, Honl's whistleblower tips about over-prescription of opiates were allegedly mishandled.
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told CQ Roll Call last week that the hearing, a joint panel with the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, would feature the families of veterans whose deaths have been linked to the facility. "They are going to be telling their heart-wrenching stories, quite honestly, which I think is appropriate," he said. "Then we're going to be hearing from the VA itself, as well as the office of the inspector general, and that's really where I have my questions."
In February, about a week after the Wisconsin Republican Party asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Baldwin for terminating her deputy state director after coming under scrutiny for Tomah, Johnson threatened to subpoena the inspector general's office for allegedly blocking his efforts to investigate the problem.
Baldwin has been criticized for not publicizing a copy of the report that her office obtained in August 2014. The GOP senator, a top target for Democrats in 2016, also has come under fire for receiving the complaints but not acting on them immediately.
Johnson said critics were trying to "drag" him into the controversy. He has said his office was not aware how serious the situation was until he saw the inspector general’s report on Jan. 12., and he blamed the VA watchdog for not making the reports public quickly enough. He told CQ Roll Call he first visited the facility in mid-March.
"The only way we're going solve these problems within [the] government bureaucracy is to be able to ... shine sunlight on the problems, you know, actually show what problems are there," Johnson said. "That's really the duty of the office of inspector general and I don't think they were fulfilling that duty — not to the extent they should have."
Baldwin, who also sits on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in a statement on the hearing that it would be "an opportunity for me and my congressional colleagues to work together in a bipartisan manner to address the problems at the Tomah VA and to hold the VA accountable."
Operatives from both parties have been trying to fuel the political controversy, with multiple investigations underway at the Tomah facility, including a Drug Enforcement Administration probe. Local veterans began calling the hospital “Candy Land,” according to one news report. The VA has also announced that it will roll out a computerized program to monitor prescriptions of opiate drugs to patients, allowing doctors to better monitor potential adverse effects.