Ryan Honl, a former VA employee and major whistleblower of the opioid overprescription scandal at Tomah, told President Barack Obama Thursday to choose a permanent inspector general for the beleaguered department.
The interaction took place after Obama stepped off Air Force One in La Crosse, Wis., to discuss his recent executive order making more Americans eligible for overtime pay. Others shook Obama’s hand and thanked him, but Honl decided to use the opportunity to ask Obama to nominate someone outside of the VA bureaucracy for the permanent position of VA IG.
The answer wasn’t what Honl hoped to hear.
“I saw the president, but I didn’t like the answer he gave me,” Honl told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “He came back and said he’s unable to nominate an IG from outside of the VA, and I took that to mean that he’s probably not going to nominate anybody.”
“I think he’s turning it over to McDonald to pick somebody or at least suggest to the president who needs to be in that position,” he added. “They don’t take it seriously.”
Earlier this week, acting IG Richard Griffin finally announced that he intends to vacate the position. He took on the role in January 2014 after George Opfer’s resignation in December 2013. Instead of a permanent IG, Linda A. Halliday, currently the assistant inspector general, is set to fill Griffin’s shoes next week. (RELATED: Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin Intends To Step Down)
Though many veterans groups were grateful at news of Griffin’s departure, most of the original push to oust Griffin included a call for the nomination of a permanent IG to restore trust in the department.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, leading a group of 10 other senators, sent Obama a letter urging him not to let the position pass from one acting IG to another.
“Over the past two years, the VA has faced well-documented challenges, including the failure to provide timely health care nationwide,” the senators wrote. “A permanent IG would help to address these failures and would play a critical role in auditing and evaluating VA programs, conducting health care inspections and investigating allegations of serious violations of policies and procedures by high-ranking members of the department.”
A report recently released by the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee noted that Griffin has refused to provide further records of the office’s investigation of Tomah, leading chairman Sen. Ron Johnson to issue a subpoena on April 30, which the IG has continued to ignore.
This refusal took place after the IG conducted an investigation in 2011 of the Tomah facilities and for three years withheld an 11-page report from both the public and Congress.
The report found that some opioid policies were “raised potentially serious concerns,” but since the allegations weren’t substantiated, the office closed the investigation in March 2014 and hung on to the report, which was only released on Feb. 6, 2015, following heat from Congress.
Narcotics from the VA ending up on the street led to at least three inquiries from the Drug Enforcement Administration. But like the OIG, the DEA hasn’t provided full details about Tomah to Congress, and neither has the Department of Justice.
Problems at the plagued facility stem back at least to 2004, when veterans and employees started calling Chief of Staff Dr. David Houlihan the “Candy Man” because of his propensity to dole out incredible amounts of narcotics.
A 60-page sheriff’s report on the suicide of Christopher Kirkpatrick, a former VA clinical psychologist at Tomah, brings allegations of Houlihan’s behavior into the spotlight. Although the Tomah scandal only erupted in 2014, evidence indicates that Kirkpatrick’s union representative, Linda L. Ellinghuysen, informed members of Congress and Ben Balkum, then-president of AFGE Local 1882, regarding Houlihan’s abusive behavior and loose prescription policies in 2009. It appears the evidence fell on deaf ears.
Emails show Ellinghuysen repeatedly coming up to bat for Kirkpatrick in response to Houlihan’s attempts to railroad him out of the facility after Kirkpatrick criticized prescription practices.
Ellinghuysen notified Democratic Reps. Ron Kind, then-Democratic Rep. Dave Obey, and then-Democratic Sens. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold. This means that members of Congress were informed about the problems in Tomah as early as 2009, but it took until 2014 for them to pay attention after Honl blew the whistle.
“There are providers and Registered Pharmacists who refuse to prescribe or fill large quantities of narcotic prescriptions as ordered by the Chief of Staff, Dr. David Houlihan,” Ellinghuysen wrote in an email to Balkum.
“It is a known fact that if the providers or pharmacists refuse to follow Dr. Houlihan’s orders they will be yelled at and perhaps fired. Quite recently a Pharmacist refused to fill an order for 1,000+ narcotic tablets for a 30 day supply for one of Dr. Houlihan’s patients — the Pharmacist viewed the order as “unethical.” This Pharmacist received a verbal thrashing from the Chief of Staff. (Many providers have left because of the harassment). This type of pressure makes it difficult for providers to “do the right thing” for the patients.”
The same day Kirkpatrick was terminated, he committed suicide, but the VA didn’t launch an investigation.
Houlihan was removed from his position in January but still is on payroll.