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Tomah VA Hearing Reveals Shocking Details About Retaliation And Opioid Abuse

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Jonah Bennett Contributor

A joint hearing Monday on the opioid prescription scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs Tomah Wis., medical facility revealed shocking details of abuse and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Dr. David Houlihan, the hospital’s chief of staff, is at the center of the controversy. As far back as 2009, many of his patients called him “the candy man.” Representatives called for a federal probe in January after numerous deaths and reports of opioid prescription policies. (RELATED: Congressmen Demand Investigation Into Out Of Control Opioids At VA Facility)

“I truly believe that Dr. Houlihan is a dangerous man,” Dr. Noelle Johnson, a former pharmacist at the Tomah VA said at Monday’s hearing. Johnson testified that she was fired from her job after refusing to fill narcotics prescriptions which she said were irrefutably unsafe. “What makes him dangerous is his lack of respect for prescribing his medications. To this day, I still question his motives, whether it be power, negligence, monetary gain, or ignorance. Maybe all of the above.”

In one case, according to Johnson, Houlihan continued to prescribe 36 tablets a day to a known substance abuser. Johnson said that as a general rule, Tomah veterans appeared to be extremely overmedicated. In fact, Heather Simcakoski, husband of 35-year-old veteran Jason Simcakoski, who died due to mixed drug toxicity in August of 2014, said that veterans were given so much medication, reselling to the street became a regular practice.

As Heather testified, some of the patients have made so much money from selling their medication that they were able to put a down payment on a house.

The hospital is still under investigation, but former employees are concerned that the office of the inspector general is labeling as “unsubstantiated” what they personally witnessed.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson expressed disbelief that complaints of intimidation were unsubstantiated by the office of the VA inspector general when the culture of fear is so widespread and unanimous. And Democratic Sen. Baldwin pushed further on the issue, asking whether administrative actions would be forthcoming.

“I don’t want to prejudge the process,” Carolyn Clancy, interim under secretary for health at the VA, responded. “I think there will additional actions, but that’s all I want to say about it right this moment.”

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy said that his years as a prosecutor don’t square up with the unbelievably high burden of proof required by the VA inspector general to substantiate allegations. According to Duffy, compelling witness testimony can alone be enough for a jury to convict.

After being pressed, Clancy confirmed to Duffy that all of the employees discussed in the allegations are still employed, including Houlihan. Administrative reviews are still ongoing.

But for Ryan Honl, former secretary of the mental health clinic at Tomah, previous administrative actions haven’t accomplished much.

“There is a cancer within VA leadership that requires excision, not promotions, not transfers, and not bonuses,” Honl said. “I just wish the whistle I blew would resurrect those who died due to mistreatment. There is a culture in the VA of admitting no wrongdoing. Rogue doctors and those who supervise them will never care what the rules are.”

“If after today’s hearing nothing changes, then I think people will lose faith in the government,” Marvin Simcakoski, Jason’s father, told representatives at the hearing. A tearful Marvin related his struggle with Jason’s doctors as they continually refused to reevaluate his medication. One of the doctors told him that while he knew how to pound nails and build houses, he didn’t know anything about how to take care of Jason properly. Yet, according to Heather, one VA doctor would say Jason had one mental illness, and another doctor would deny the diagnosis, listing some other mental condition as the culprit.

Now, Jason is dead, and his 12-year-old daughter is left without a father.

According to Sen. Ron Johnson, “the investigation is far from over.”

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