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Veterans at VA Hospital in Tomah Wisconsin once again at risk

Written By | Dec 1, 2016

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2017 – Despite President Obama’s promises to “clean up” Veterans Affairs including signing a $15 billion bill to end delays at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals two years ago,  veterans still face unnecessary risks.

Former Chief of Staff Dr. David Houlihan, nicknamed “the Candy Man”, was fired after reports that he over-prescribed potent opioids to veteran. Allegations against Houlihan, 52, where made in January 2015 following a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting who reported on the death of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran who died from a drug overdose while at the hospital in 2014.

Houlihan was fired after Simcakoski died, even though reports of medical malfeasance did not name Simcakoski the medical circumstances and cause of death of the unnamed patient matched Simcakoski records, according to investigative reporters.

The veteran died Aug. 30, 2014 from “mixed drug toxicity” while a patient in the hospital’s short-stay mental health floor. Records indicated that he had been prescribed and dosed with 13 medications, including several that cause respiratory depression, in a 24-hour period.

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The VA Inspector General report released on Aug. 6 showed that staff psychiatrists had added new medications an already lengthy list of prescriptions, including quetiapine, tramadol and others known to cause sedation prior to his death.

One of those new FDA Approved medicines, Suboxone, is described by the manufacturer as a Controlled substance with a High risk for addiction and dependence. Drug warnings are that the drug can cause respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses or when combined with other substances.

According to the manufacturer Suboxone is the combination of two different drugs: buprenorphine (a partial opioid agonist) and naloxone (a pure opioid antagonist) and it is a reported safer option that morphine for persons addicted to stronger opioids, helping them to wean from addition while minimizing withdrawal symptoms.

According to the Military Times the hospital staff were found to be investigators into the Marines death found Tomah VA to be:

“woefully inept in treating the former corporal when he was found unresponsive. First, they failed to determine whether he had a heartbeat, failed to immediately initiate lifesaving measures, did not employ a portable defibrillator and did not have medications on hand that may have countered an accidental overdose.

“Furthermore, we learned unit staff stopped CPR when facility firefighters arrived [expecting they] would take over the CPR efforts … however, firefighters at the facility are not designated as first-line staff to provide hands on emergency care.”

The report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found the medical center had a 14-fold increase in the number of prescribed oxycodone pills from 2004 to 2012, from 50,000 to 712,000.

“Veterans at the hospital told a reporter that distribution was so rampant, they nicknamed the place “Candy Land,” and said Simcakoski’s death served as an example of overzealous prescribing practices.”
Dr. Houlihan has since had his medical license restored despite allegations of his over prescribing of narcotics to veterans.

This time, according to Acting Tomah VA medical center director Victoria Brahm 592 veterans who received dental care from the Tomah VA are being encouraged to be tested for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C or HIV.

Brahm is insisting that the chance of infection is low. However, the fact that the unnamed dentist was violating regulations by using his personally owned equipment on the veterans, and then reusing that same equipment without properly cleaning makes it possible. The Tomah VA says its practice is to use sterile and disposable equipment.

“It was purposeful that he was violating VA regulations,” Brahm said Tuesday. “During all of the orientation, he used all of our equipment. He used it appropriately, so it was very purposeful from what we found in our investigation that he knew exactly what he was doing, and preferred to use his own equipment against procedure.”

A dental assistant noticed the dentist reusing equipment and it was determined his unsafe practices continued from October 2015 to October 2016. A further insult is that the dentist has been reassigned to an administrative role, despite potentially exposing almost 600 veterans to HIV or hepatitis.

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The inspector general is investigating to see if criminal charges can be brought against the dentist.

“We have clear evidence that we are moving forward and the people that remain here are very vested and here for the mission of taking care of veterans,” Brahm said. “There are pockets of improvement that need to occur they still need to I’ll be honest, and we are aware of where they are and we are dealing with them as quickly as we can.”

The VA is offering free screenings to those veterans and will provide free medical treatment to those who test positive for an infection. Veterans who received dental treatments at Tomah VA can ask questions by calling (888) 598-7793. The center also has a designated follow-up testing site in Building 400, Room #1054 on the Tomah VA campus. It’s open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. until noon.

On a cheerier note, taking care of Tomah veterans a new coffee shop and thrift store has opened with the goal of helping vets in need. WEAU 13 News, Tomah, reports:

The new “G.I. Need That” thrift store and “Cup O’ Joe” coffee shop are raising funds for the Veterans Assistance Foundation and its mission of helping homeless veterans as proceeds from purchased will go the Veterans Assistance Foundation. The shops are in a renovated hardware store and tattoo parlor in downtown Tomah.

Veterans who need household and clothing items are able to take items from the thrift store to furnish the homes and the second floor of the building will be turned into eight apartments for homeless veterans. A small space outside will be turned into a garden and seating area.

“I do think that this makes us stand out more than other programs,” said Dawn Ollendick, Program Director for the Veterans Assistance Foundation. “We do have our veterans, they come in here and volunteer, some of them are actually applying to work here, we are going to be hiring three part-time people.”

The store is open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The thrift store takes donations any time it’s open.

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.