MADISON — The parents and widow of a Marine veteran who died at the Tomah VA Medical Center appear in a pair of television ads that debuted Thursday praising Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and calling attacks against her “shameful.”
The spots are an attempt by Baldwin to counter one of the main criticisms of her lodged by Republican opponent Leah Vukmir and conservative groups. Vukmir has charged that Baldwin failed to respond quickly enough to the crisis at Tomah, where veterans were being overprescribed opioids leading up to the death of Jason Simcakoski in 2014.
Simcakoski’s parents are in one new Baldwin ad, and his widow is in another. In both, they praise Baldwin for working with them to enact a law that toughened opioid prescription guidelines. They also call for attacks against Baldwin on Tomah to stop.
“When I see these attack ads against Tammy Baldwin, using Jason’s death, I think it’s shameful,” his widow Heather says in one ad. “Tammy has literally been there with us every step of the way for three years. She’s the one helping us do right by our veterans.”
In the other spot, his parents, Marv and Lind Simcakoski, describe how their son was overprescribed opioids at Tomah following a skull injury.
“We’re just happy that we have Senator Baldwin to help the veterans that are out there,” Marv Simcakoski said. “She brought both parties together to help pass a law named after our son, Jason, to make the VA accountable. ... When I see these ads attacking Senator Baldwin, I just want to say ‘Stop.’”
In an ad released Wednesday, Vukmir attacked Baldwin over her response to the Tomah crisis. It was the latest in a series of spots by her and conservative groups that have spent millions attacking Baldwin on the issue.
“You knew about the opioid crisis at the Tomah VA, and you did nothing,” Vukmir said in the ad.
Baldwin’s office heard from a whistleblower about concerns at Tomah in March 2014. It received a report in August 2014 about its 2½-year investigation into Tomah that cited concerns over the prescription of opioids at the facility.
Simcakoski died the day after Baldwin’s office received the report.
Baldwin hired Democratic attorney Marc Elias to review how her office handled complaints at Tomah. His report found that Baldwin’s constituent services team did not pass along concerns to the office’s top staff and took too long to respond.
Baldwin admitted that mistakes were made. She cut the pay of her chief of staff and demoted her state director in reaction. She also fired one of her aides who claimed to have prepared a report on problems at Tomah that Baldwin said she never received.
In June 2015, Baldwin worked with Simcakoski’s family and introduced the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law a year later. It toughened guidelines for prescribing drugs at VA facilities, including requiring VA employees prescribing opioids to be better trained and to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol.
Vukmir’s campaign manager Jess Ward, in response to the ads, said Baldwin “ignored a report about the opioid crisis at the Tomah VA for months” and hired a Democratic attorney who worked for Hillary Clinton to “cover it up.”
“If she genuinely cares about our veterans, why did she go to such great lengths to cover up the truth?” Ward said. “Baldwin puts politics before our veterans.”