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The VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., has been under scrutiny for the overprescription of opioid painkillers to veterans. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) The VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., has been under scrutiny for the overprescription of opioid painkillers to veterans. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., has been under scrutiny for the overprescription of opioid painkillers to veterans. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 5, 2017

Super PAC attack blaming Tammy Baldwin for deaths of 3 veterans at Tomah VA hospital lacks evidence

When seeking re-election in 2018, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin could be vulnerable to criticism of how she responded to an opioid painkiller scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center in western Wisconsin.

But an attack ad from Americas PAC that began airing April 27, 2017 claims Baldwin was told by a whistleblower about "overmedicated veterans" at Tomah and made "deadly mistakes" that left three veterans dead.

The first-term Wisconsin Democrat has said her office made mistakes in handling a key inspection report about the Tomah VA and emails from a whistleblower.

But that’s different than making mistakes that were deadly to three veterans.

One death occurred years after the veteran ended his treatment at the Tomah VA and another had nothing to do with overmedication.

As for the third veteran, Jason Simcakoski, Baldwin had requested investigations into the Tomah prescription practices before Simcakoski overdosed at the facility. And although Baldwin was slow to respond to emails from a whistleblower, those emails weren’t received until after Simakoski’s death.

The ad

Americas PAC is an Iowa-based super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates. It is largely funded by Republican Richard Uihlein, co-founder of Uline, a Wisconsin shipping and packaging supplies distributor. Another Uihlein-supported super PAC, also eyeing 2018, previously attacked Baldwin with a claim we rated Mostly False about funding U.S. military troops.

As for the Americas PAC attack, we’re presenting the entire script of its radio ad to show how sound bites, spliced with narration, connect Baldwin to the the deaths.   

Newscast audio: New developments tonight in a Wisconsin VA hospital investigation. Senator Tammy Baldwin --

Newscast audio: -- and investigating claims of a cover-up involving one Senate Democrat.

Narrator: A whistleblower went to Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin for help protecting disabled veterans.

Newscast audio: Senator Tammy Baldwin learned of the allegations that the patients were being overmedicated.

Narrator: And Tammy Baldwin was slow to take action.

Talk show audio: -- critical of Senator Baldwin of having a delayed reaction to the March report.

Narrator: When disabled veterans were counting on her, Tammy Baldwin blinked.

Interviewer audio: Did your office drop the ball?

Baldwin audio clip: Mistakes were made.

Narrator: Deadly mistakes. Three disabled veterans died.

Newscast audio: -- after the deaths of three patients at a VA hospital.

Narrator: When facing security challenges from Russia, China and ISIS, will Tammy Baldwin make another mistake?

Now let's look at the three deaths.

Featured Fact-check

Two of the deaths

The Tomah VA and how politicians responded to problems there have been in the news since January 2015, when the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting exposed the overprescription of opioid drugs by the facility.

The day after the Baldwin attack ad began airing, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that two Wisconsin radio stations had pulled the ad after lawyers for Baldwin’s campaign complained it was false. Tom Donelson of Americas PAC told the Journal Sentinel and us that the committee stands by the ad.

But two of the three deaths clearly don’t support the attack on Baldwin:

  • Jacob Ward had been heavily medicated at the Tomah VA and later became a drug addict. But his parents said his care at Tomah ended in 2007 and they transferred him to the Milwaukee VA in 2008 and that they didn’t blame the Tomah VA for his death. Ward, who was 27, overdosed on heroin and cocaine in a Milwaukee apartment on Sept. 4, 2013. That was six years after he stopped going to Tomah and a year before the whistleblower contacted Baldwin.

  • Thomas Patrick Baer, 74, died Jan. 14, 2015 at a hospital in La Crosse, Wis., two days after he suffered two strokes at the Tomah VA while waiting for treatment there. His death was not connected to overmedication.

That leaves Simcakoski, who suffered a fatal drug overdose in the psychiatric ward of the Tomah VA. He had been prescribed 15 drugs, including muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, antipsychotic medicines and an opioid painkiller.

Let’s look at a timeline of his case and how it relates to Baldwin, based primarily on Gannett Wisconsin Media news reports.

Jason Simcakoski

Between April and June of 2014, Baldwin wrote letters to the Tomah VA director, a VA official in Washington and the VA inspector general in Washington.

She asked each of them to investigate allegations that "a large percentage of veterans" at the Tomah VA were being treated for abuse of opioids and other drugs that had originally been prescribed by the facility -- and that continued to be prescribed to them. The allegations were made by a constituent who wanted to remain anonymous, according to the letters.

That means Baldwin had taken those steps months before the Simcakoski’s death, which occurred on Aug. 30, 2014.

Moreover, Ryan Honl, the whistleblower alluded to in the radio ad, didn’t make a complaint to Baldwin’s office until nearly a month later.

Baldwin nevertheless has been criticized because she took no action between Aug. 29, 2014 -- the day before Simcakoski’s death, when her office received an inspection report documenting the overprescribing of opioids at Tomah -- and January 2015, when the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the circumstances of his death and Baldwin called for an investigation. In between, Honl had repeatedly emailed Baldwin’s office asking that Baldwin call for an investigation and make the inspection report public.

Baldwin later said she was disciplining her chief of staff and two other aides for failing to take appropriate action on complaints about Tomah. And she said her office made mistakes in handling the inspection report and the whistleblower’s pleas.

Still, Baldwin didn’t receive the inspection report until the day before Simcakoski’s death and the whistleblower didn’t begin contacting her until after Simcakoski’s death.

Our rating

Americas PAC says Baldwin was told by a whistleblower about "overmedicated veterans," she made "deadly mistakes" and "three veterans died" at the Tomah VA hospital.

Baldwin has acknowledged mistakes in the handling of an inspection report and a whistle blower’s emails about veterans being over prescribed opioid painkillers at Tomah. But none of those tie Baldwin to the deaths.

One death had nothing to do with overmedication. One was an overdose, but it occurred in Milwaukee years after the veteran stopped being treated in Tomah and before the whistleblower contacted Baldwin. And the third death, though an overdose at the Tomah VA, also occurred before the whistleblower contacted Baldwin (and only one day after she received the inspection report).

We rate the statement False.

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Politifact rating logo Politifact Rating:
Says Tammy Baldwin was told by a whistleblower about "overmedicated veterans," she made "deadly mistakes" and "three veterans died" at the Tomah VA hospital
In a radio ad
Thursday, April 27, 2017


Related fact check:

The attack on Baldwin is along the lines of one made against Democrat Russ Feingold, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016. A super PAC claimed that when Feingold was in the Senate, he received a memo in 2009 that "outlined veteran harm" at the Tomah VA "and nothing was done." Our rating was False, as there was no evidence Feingold received the memo.


Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Tammy Baldwin campaign calls foul on new radio ad," April 28, 2017

Interview, Tom Donelson of Amercas PAC, May 2, 2017

Interview, Tammy Baldwin campaign spokesman Scott Spector, May 2, 2017

Journal Sentinel SoundCloud, America’s PAC Tammy Baldwin radio ad, April 28, 2017

Americas PAC, news release, April 27, 2017

Center for Responsive Politics, Americas PAC, accessed April 28, 2017

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Koch-funded Super PAC attack says Russ Feingold got 2009 memo about harm to veterans and did nothing," May 11, 2016

Tammy Baldwin campaign lawyers Jonathan S. Berkon and David J. Lazarus, letter to radio station managers, April 27, 2017

Gannett Wisconsin Media, "Sen. Baldwin had Tomah VA report for months," Jan. 29, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Opiates handed out like candy to 'doped-up' veterans at Wisconsin VA," Jan. 12, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "After criticism, Tammy Baldwin calls for probe at Tomah VA hospital," Feb. 13, 2015

Gannett Wisconsin Media, "Baldwin disciplines chief of staff, 2 aides over Tomah," March 13, 2015

Gannett Wisconsin Media, "'My father is dead ... and I blame the VA,’" Feb. 11, 2015

Gannett Wisconsin Media, "Tomah: A trail of secrecy, missed opportunities," Feb. 24, 2015

WXOW-TV, "Coon Valley fallen veteran part of Tomah VA investigation," Aug. 7, 2015

Tammy Baldwin, letter to Tomah VA, April 7, 2014

Tammy Baldwin, letter to veterans affairs official, June 12, 2014

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Super PAC attack blaming Tammy Baldwin for deaths of 3 veterans at Tomah VA hospital lacks evidence

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