Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Russ Feingold differ over veterans health care

 ·  Mark Sommerhauser, TwinCities.com   ·   Link to Article

When it comes to health care for veterans, the gap between Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democrat Russ Feingold goes deeper than a political blame game.

Shane Sanderson is a U.S. Army veteran from Sheldon who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Sanderson praised the mental health care he received from a VA clinic in Rice Lake for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It probably saved my life,” Sanderson said. 

Sanderson, a farmer and middle school teacher, waded into the U.S. Senate race last month by voicing an ad for the progressive group VoteVets.org that criticized Johnson for his response to reports that veterans at the Tomah VA Medical Center were being over-prescribed opiate drugs. 

Before that, a conservative group, Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, ran ads accusing Feingold of not properly responding to similar reports when he was in the Senate.

The finger-pointing over Tomah is rooted in a fundamental divide between the candidates on health care for veterans.

Johnson, the first-term senator from Oshkosh, favors partially privatizing veterans health care. Feingold, the three-term former senator from Middleton, maintains the VA system should remain public but be better-funded.

Veterans health care has been under national scrutiny, following revelations that veterans across the country were waiting too long to get treatment — in some cases, dying while waiting for care.

Demand for veterans health care has soared in recent years as soldiers returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and as many Vietnam-era veterans reach an age where they need more care.

Johnson envisions a lesser role for VA staff and facilities to meet the growing challenge. In an interview, Johnson said he supports a system in which veterans would have more opportunities to choose between getting care from the VA or from private providers.

“The long-term solution would be to give vets more choice to access private health care,” Johnson said.

Sanderson fears that could dent the quality of care veterans receive.

“I would hate to see that mitigated by the lowest bidder, and that’s what I fear,” Sanderson said.

PRIVATIZATION AT ISSUE

Feingold told the State Journal that lawmakers need to provide the VA with adequate funding, particularly to improve mental health and women’s health services.

Feingold said Wisconsin veterans regularly tell him they don’t want their health care left in private hands.

“(Johnson) essentially says that he doesn’t think a public VA is ultimately the way to go, that it’s destined not to work because the government is involved,” Feingold said. “Well, that’s not what veterans tell me.

“They want it improved, but they would prefer the VA not be privatized — and I agree with them.”

Johnson said he does not support total privatization of veterans health care. VA facilities should retain key roles in caring for veterans, he said, by becoming hubs of treatment for ailments common to veterans such as amputations or post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Johnson’s office said wasteful spending within the VA has been a problem. His office cited cost overruns on VA construction projects, including a Colorado VA facility that cost about $1.7 billion, almost triple the cost of an earlier estimate.

The federal government budgeted $163 billion for VA programs in fiscal 2016. It’s not clear what additional costs might come from giving private health care options to all veterans.

A law passed by Congress in 2014, which gave greater access to private care for some veterans, suggests opening those choices to all veterans might not come cheap.

That same law produced one of the most controversial votes cast by Johnson since he took office.

Federal lawmakers were scrambling in 2014 to respond to revelations that veterans died waiting for care at VA facilities.

Congress and President Barack Obama quickly passed what became known as the Veterans Choice Act. It allows veterans facing long wait times for treatment — or those who live long distances from VA medical facilities — to use their veterans benefits to contract with private health care providers. The act also boosted funding for existing VA facilities and staff.

Citing concerns with its cost, Johnson was one of three senators to initially vote against the bill. Johnson later voted in favor of a House-Senate compromise version of the bill, which Obama signed into law.

VETERANS CHOICE ACT

Feingold saves some of his sharpest criticism of Johnson for his initial vote against the act.

“When it was time to actually provide the resources, what (Johnson) said was, ‘We can’t afford it. We’ll bankrupt our country,'” Feingold said. “Well, he voted for lots of things that could bankrupt our country, like supporting military budgets and others that are very expensive and aren’t necessarily paid for.

“But when it came to this issue — the issue of resources to make sure we don’t have the waiting lists — he wasn’t there. He was one of a very few who said ‘No.'”

Johnson said that account is misleading, not least because he ultimately supported the act.

Johnson said the congressional debate over the Veterans Choice Act was dysfunctional — what he describes as a rushed, knee-jerk response to scandal. Johnson said his initial “no” vote was him seeking a “time-out” on the bill after getting an estimate that it could cost more than $400 billion over a decade.

By the time of the vote on the final version of the bill, Johnson said many of his questions had been answered and its estimated cost was far less.

“Only three people had the courage to not mortgage our children’s future,” Johnson said. “I’ve been accused of voting against vets. No, I voted for our children.”

Meanwhile, problems at Tomah have been in the headlines since reports surfaced of over-prescription of opiate painkiller drugs there — and of the death of a U.S. Marine from Stevens Point, Jason Simcakoski, in the center’s care. An investigation by the VA’s Inspector General found deficiencies in care at Tomah contributed to Simcakoski’s death.

Johnson said his office initially could have done more to respond to complaints of wrongdoing at Tomah. But Johnson maintains that after he understood the scope of problems at Tomah, he has done more than other elected officials to address them.

VA WHISTLEBLOWER SUPPORTS JOHNSON

The whistleblower at the center of the scandal, Gulf War veteran and former Tomah VA employee Ryan Honl, agrees with Johnson. In fact, Honl — who describes himself as a former Democrat — said he’s actively supporting Johnson in the Senate race.

Feingold, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind also have faced criticism about their handling of complaints of wrongdoing at Tomah.

“(Johnson) is the least culpable of any elected official in this whole mess,” Honl said. “His office has been open and willing and talking to whistleblowers.”

Starting last year, Johnson conducted an investigation of Tomah through his congressional office and the Senate Homeland Security committee of which he is chairman. The investigation included a field hearing in Tomah in March 2015 that included testimony from Simcakoski’s family members. Johnson said he believes the work done by his committee helped lead to top Tomah officials leaving the facility, including former center director Mario DeSanctis and former chief of staff David Houlihan.

Johnson also has introduced Senate bills he said will increase transparency in the VA system and protect whistleblowers who speak out about problems.

Feingold said his 18 years in the Senate produced other advances in veterans care. He supported efforts to better track veterans’ suicides, pushed to expand outreach to make veterans aware of their benefits and advocated for construction of VA facilities in northern and western Wisconsin.

Pressed on what he thinks should be done to address problems at Tomah, Feingold told the State Journal he does not “think that micromanaging Tomah is the answer.”

“This isn’t just about Tomah. This is about a national system,” Feingold said. “There was this problem (that) needs to be addressed, but that doesn’t mean you sort of say that these VA facilities aren’t worthy. They are worthy, and they’re in need of improvement.”

To Honl, improvement means more health care choices in addition to the VA. He said it’s time for elected officials to stop politicizing the issue and consider what’s best for veterans.

Honl favors a system similar to what Johnson describes, in which the VA would still be an option for health care alongside private providers.

“If that happened,” Honl said, “it would force the VA to start caring about the customer.”

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