MADISON, Wis. — The daughter of an Army veteran who died after visiting a troubled Veterans Affairs hospital in Wisconsin is unhappy that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson mentioned her family’s story in a campaign debate, saying Tuesday that Johnson didn’t do enough to help the family although documents show he pressed the VA to look into the death.
Candace Delis’ father, Thomas Baer of Marshfield, died after suffering two strokes at the Tomah VA Medical Center in January 2015. He wasn’t given anti-clotting medication or a CT scan because the scanner was down. A Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s report found a doctor at Tomah failed to diagnose a stroke Baer had as he waited in the urgent care clinic but determined that the physician and staff did nothing wrong.
The senator is locked in a tight race with Democrat Russ Feingold that could help determine which party controls the Senate. He mentioned both Delis and Baer during a debate with Feingold Friday in responding to questions about improving VA care. He said Delis told him that she never would have taken her father to the Tomah facility if she had known about problems there, which largely involved the overprescription of drugs.
“It was almost as if he used our family,” Delis said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “He re-opened a wound. He doesn’t care about a veteran’s family unless it directly impacts his cause as a positive.”
Delis approached Johnson for help shortly after her father’s death. But she said Johnson failed to fulfill a promise to launch his own investigation. She also said Johnson’s office refused to make calls to speed up a claim she filed against the VA.
Johnson campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger disagreed, saying Johnson moved forcefully on the case.
“Ron Johnson was deeply disturbed by the deaths of Wisconsin veterans like Thomas Baer, and he took immediate and effective action to uncover what happened,” Reisinger said.
Reisinger provided a letter from Johnson pressing the Department of Veteran Affairs to look into Baer’s death weeks after it happened. Johnson also wrote in June 2015 to the VA inspector general’s office complaining that the office briefed members of Congress on Baer’s death before the family got information.
In May of this year, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that Johnson chairs released a report on systemic failures at Tomah. The report included a section devoted to Baer that found several shortcomings in the inspector general’s attempts to substantiate the Baer family’s allegations.
As for not helping Delis pursue her claim, Reisinger said the Senate Ethics Committee has advised that senators shouldn’t intervene in ongoing enforcement, investigative or other quasi-judicial proceedings.
The Tomah facility was dubbed “Candy Land” by some veterans for its prescribing practices. Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine veteran, died from “mixed drug toxicity” at Tomah in 2014. The VA acknowledged failures at the facility earlier this year and said it was working to prevent future problems.
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