By Luke Rosiak
A former federal employee union president is wracked with regret because veterans likely died at a time when she knew about gross misconduct within her Department of Veterans Affairs facility but didn’t tell congressional leaders because they were Republicans.
“If I would’ve gone to him two years ago, who knows what kind of lives could’ve been saved,” Germaine Clarno told a radio interviewer Monday, referring to the Republican leader of a VA subcommittee. Clarno, a lifelong Democrat and social worker at the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital in Hines, Ill., was president of the union representing doctors at the hospital as the deadly wait-time scandal unfolded.
Dozens of veterans have died in recent years while waiting for appointments with doctors at multiple VA hospitals and care centers around the nation. But VA staffers systematically manipulated records to make it seem like they didn’t have long waits. The problems became so severe by 2013, that as many as 40 patients died at just the Phoenix facility.
The same practices took place at Hines, with the knowledge of its director. Additional problems also plagued Hines, like heart scans getting discarded without being read.
Clarno’s tale of haunting regret is at least the second case of people connected with VA unions admitting they did not speak up about life-and-death issues because the idea of talking to a Republican was too distasteful.
Sen. Mark Kirk was the ranking Republican on the Senate VA Appropriations subcommittee when Clarno finally talked to him in 2013, and wielding the power of the purse, he immediately launched a crusade to expose wrong-doing at Hines.
But in the previous years, Clarno went instead to Democrats who were ill-positioned to do anything, and who indeed, did nothing. Clarno and Lisa Nee, a VA doctor she worked with, described their actions during the interview Monday with Illinois’ WLS-AM radio host John Howell.
HOWELL: Both [Sen. Dick] Durbin and [Rep. Tammy] Duckworth put out a statement last week, as did our junior senator Mark Kirk, who I know has been helpful to you, right doctor?
NEE: Yes. And I didn’t think he would be. He was the last resort.
HOWELL: And usually when a union has to go to Republicans it’s a frosty reception, I suppose.
CLARNO: Exactly. And if I would’ve gone to him two years ago, who knows what kind of lives could’ve been saved.
HOWELL: That’s a really sad aspect of this.
CLARNO: It is.
The women first went to Rep. Danny Davis, a Democrat who represented the district that included Hines, but he was not on any committees with VA oversight authority. “Danny Davis was pretty apathetic not because he didn’t know what was going on but because he felt like their was nothing he could do,” Nee said in the interview.
The two women then went to Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran Democrat who also represents the area and was an official at VA before being elected to Congress, but since was a new lawmaker without leadership roles on any committees, she did not help. Clarno and Nee said Duckworth wouldn’t even read a report about the situation at Hines.
“It was really upsetting. This isn’t about, you know, whether you have a D or an R at the end of your name. This is about the VA, this is about protecting the men and women who fought for our country,” Clarno said.
Clarno tried to work through Hines managers before going to Congress, and is now tirelessly working every possible avenue to fix problems in the VA. She is still involved with the union, but is no longer president, and says she has experienced harassment from some union members.
A similar situation unfolded in Wisconsin, the site of VA’s Tomah hospital — known as “Candy Land” because its doctors doped up veterans with dangerous combinations of sedatives rather than treating their underlying conditions.
The Tomah VA employees union didn’t take complaints to Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, even though he is not only from Wisconsin, but is chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee with jurisdiction over management issues in government agencies.
“We didn’t even talk to Republicans then,” Lin Ellinghuysen, union president and past vice president, told the Wisconsin Watchdog.
But there is no remorse in Wisconsin. The union is now running ads against Johnson, faulting him for not acting on information he was never given. The public employees union is campaigning for Russ Feingold, a Democrat who preceded Johnson in office and is now running to retake the seat.
The union initially said it told Feingold of problems at the facility via a hand-delivered letter in 2009, when he still occupied the Senate seat. But after the absence of any corrective action by Feingold became a campaign issue, the union retracted its claim, and said it never told him.
Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the state’s other senator, received an investigation report detailing problems at the Tomah facility, but nothing came of it. Baldwin admitted that it was a major failing, and fired the staffer she said was responsible.
Ellinghuysen said the union talked with Democrats about the problems, but she didn’t follow up when they didn’t get results because she is no “courageous Wonder Woman” and “needed a paycheck.”
Ryan Honl, a lifelong Democrat who worked at Tomah, reluctantly went to Johnson’s office, and got a response the next day after being frustrated with a lack of response from Baldwin and another Democrat, Rep. Ron Kind.
Then, after Republicans did the work of proving undeniable mistreatment, the Democratic members belatedly chimed in with expressions of outrage at the mistreatment of vets — just as Durbin and Duckworth did in Illinois — Honl told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The failure of the unions to alert relevant authorities about patient abuse, coupled with political attacks against the few congressmen who actually tried to put a stop to it, astounded Honl to such an extent that he renounced his political party.
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