Wisconsin senator talks ahead of VA field hearing

WASHINGTON – This week we have been bringing you reports about the latest scandal at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Doctors at the Tomah, WI VA Medical Center have been accused of over-prescribing opioid pain killers, and now Congress is set to investigate at a field hearing on the ground in Tomah.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) says he thought the Wisconsin VA healthcare system was working well and immune to problems until he found out about the hidden Inspector General report.

POLICASTRO: Senator, tell me what you would like to see come out of the field hearing in Tomah?

JOHNSON: First of all, the facts. I certainly want to know who knew what, when. And I’m really focusing on the VA itself and the office of the IG.

POLICASTRO: When did your office get those whistle blower reports?

JOHNSON: We didn’t get the reports until after the story broke in early January. I knew nothing about the problems in Tomah until January 12th.

POLICASTRO: Every member of Congress I’ve talked to has said if I got this report earlier, I could have done something sooner. What is your request from the IG?

JOHNSON: Doing everything we can to strengthen the independence of the IG from the agency and the department and they’re really auditing and inspecting and investigating and then forcing the disclosure of that information. Forcing those reports to be presented to Congress and the oversight committees but also the public at large.

POLICASTRO: After looking at this issue at the Tomah VA in-depth, do you feel like this might be the tip of the iceberg for the problems at the VA?

JOHNSON: Yes, this is the tip of the iceberg. We would’ve liked to think there’s just one problem with the VA in Arizona. Or, okay, two problems with Tomah. I don’t believe that. First of all, I have to underscore the fact that we’re dealing with a government-run health care system. We’re dealing with a government bureaucracy. And, I don’t know too many people that look at a bureaucratic system as being highly efficient, highly-effective, very cost effective.

POLICASTRO: If we have so many problems inside the veterans’ health care system, should veterans be treated in private health care?

JOHNSON: We’re moving toward that model. The veterans’ health care bill that we did pass, the Choice Act, starts a pilot program. And we need to asses that, we need to look at that very carefully. I don’t want to throw everyone under the bus. I think the vast majority of people who work in the VA system are doing it because they want to provide good, high-quality care. But, again, it’s a bureaucratic, government-run system and that’s just a problem.

Johnson says he thinks the over-prescribing of opiates at the Tomah VA is part of a much greater national problem – one he says he plans to get to the bottom of – during the Tomah VA field hearing.

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