Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's latest commercial features a Texas resident who claims her husband's death was hastened by a company with ties to Democratic candidate Bruce Lunsford.
The ad is the harshest so far in a series from McConnell that highlight Valor Health Care, a company that runs clinics for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Texas and Arkansas. Lunsford, a Louisville businessman, is on the company's board of directors and temporarily served as CEO.
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But the central charge of the ad is not backed up on-screen or off with any official documentation. "I believe that the clinic helped kill my husband," Susan Woodman says in the ad, which began airing late Monday night. "One lousy test could have saved Woody's life but a Valor clinic just wouldn't do it."
Woodman doesn't explain during the commercial which test wasn't taken or what illness her husband, Korean War veteran Ira "Woody" Woodman, was battling at the time.
A message left by the Herald-Leader at the home of a Susan Woodman in Texas City, Texas, wasn't returned.
But in a lengthy statement released through the McConnell campaign, Woodman said the clinic failed to refer her husband, who suffered from repeated bladder infections, to a urologist to check for cancer. He died in January 2007, four months after a VA hospital operated on him.
No lawsuits or formal complaints through the VA have been filed against the company related to Woodman's case, said company spokeswoman Molly Cate.
Lunsford's campaign spokesman called McConnell's commercial "despicable" and a distraction from other issues.
"At a time when the whole nation is focused on our serious economic problems, it's sad and outrageous — over the top, really — that Mitch McConnell has once again resorted to smears and innuendo," said Cary Stemle, Lunsford's spokesman.
Larry Scott, who operates VAwatchdog.org, said he wasn't aware of Woodman's case. But he said, overall, the number of complaints he has received from veterans in Texas and Arkansas jumped after Valor took over clinics in those areas.
"The general gist of what I'm getting is sub-par care, care that is not equivalent to the previous owners of those clinics," said Scott, a former journalist who said he's generally opposed to private companies operating VA clinics.
Scott said accusations, such as Woodman's claim that the clinic contributed to her husband's death, should be backed up with records, especially in the context of a political campaign.
"If this woman has any evidence, records or documentation or if this woman has filed suit and an attorney has weighed in, then I would say, yes, it's fair game," Scott said. "If I were a politician ... I would want someone who had some documentation for that type of claim."
Joe Gershtenson, a government professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said McConnell's new ad levels a serious charge "by talking about somebody dying."
"I would say that does ratchet this up a notch," he said. "I'm not sure how many of the attacks we see from any candidates can be considered fair. But to try to pin the death on Lunsford, that seems to be a little bit of stretch."
With this ad, McConnell could be trying to accomplish two things simultaneously, Gershtenson said. It diverts Lunsford's and voters' attention away from the unpredictable economy that has weakened McConnell's support for re-election in recent weeks. And it could negatively define Lunsford for some voters, Gershtenson said.
Woodman said in the statement that despite her husband's suffering from repeated bladder infections starting in 2005, the Valor-run clinic in Texas City didn't refer Woodman to a urologist to check for cancer. The Woodmans didn't receive that diagnosis until they were referred by one of the clinic's doctors to a VA hospital in Houston in July 2006.
"Two different doctors at the VA hospital in Houston were surprised that Woody did not receive the kinds of tests that would have detected the bladder cancer sooner," the statement said.
Valor issued a statement confirming that Woodman was a patient at the Texas City clinic "where he was treated for multiple, significant and complex health conditions by a team of medical professionals at the clinic, as well as specialists at the VA Hospital." Under federal law, health care firms cannot discuss details of patients' history.
Valor, which says it has treated more than 57,000 veterans, decried what it called the "mischaracterization" of the company in a political campaign.
Both campaigns have set up dueling Web sites on the issues: LunsfordValor.com is operated by McConnell's campaign and Lunsford campaign created www.valortruth.com.