VA Official Managing Negligent Unit Where Marine Vet Died Rarely Visits Facility, Received Bonus

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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An official closely connected to Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski’s death at the Tomah Veterans Affairs facility has up until now escaped notice, mostly because he rarely shows up at the hospital.

Dr. David Skripka, associate chief of staff for mental health and clinical overseer of the Mental Health Service Line, under which the Acute Psychiatry Unit (APU) falls, has completely evaded mention in the ensuing investigation about the scandal. Simcakoski died from drug toxicity on August 30, 2014.

Matthew Gowan, public affairs officer at the Tomah VA, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Simcakoski did not die in the APU. Rather, he died in the Community Living Center Short Stay – Mental Health Recovery Unit.

“The primary responsibility for patient care on that unit did not reside with the Mental Health Associate Chief of Staff (ACOS),” Gowan said. “In addition, it would be the Community Living Center staff, not the Acute Psychiatry staff, that were referred to in the OIG report that stated: “We determined that facility staff did not respond appropriately after finding the patient unresponsive.”

Whistleblowers think that the VA’s response is playing with semantics.

According to a whistleblower well-versed with the layout and administrative structure of the hospital, Simcakoski was first admitted to the APU. Several days later, he was transferred to a bed in the CLC Short Stay Mental Health Recovery Unit. This unit, however, is located in the same building and on the same floor, about 30 feet from the APU.

Dr. Rhonda Davis was the psychiatrist for the APU and also the inpatient psychiatrist for Simcakoski while he was in the CLC Mental Health Unit.

Davis reported directly to Skripka, and Skripka reported to former Chief of Staff Dr. David Houlihan. Both Davis and Houlihan were fired. Skripka appears to have escaped notice entirely.

Skripka had close involvement with the Simcakoski case, functioning as the middleman between Davis, who prescribed the majority of Simcakoski’s 14 medications, and Houlihan, who was directing her activities and also served as Simcakoski’s outpatient psychiatrist.

Houlihan told Davis to put Simcakoski on Suboxone two days before his overdose. That drug was the last straw, pushing Simcakoski over into toxicity. A cocktail of 14 drugs, in addition to Suboxone, caused his death.

The CLC Unit was totally unprepared to deliver emergency care, as Simcakoski slipped into cardiac arrest. An inspector general report determined that neither Simcakoski, nor his family were warned about the potential side-effects. Nurses neglected to perform resuscitation, they did not use the emergency call system and they only administered reviving drugs 30 minutes after they found him. (RELATED: Report Blames VA For Avoidable Death Of Marine, Cites Abysmal Failures)

Simcakoski died, even though his death was preventable, said the inspector general.

Whistleblowers familiar with the situation at Tomah think that Skripka likely dodged mention and responsibility because of his strange work arrangement. At some point in 2014, Skripka negotiated an arrangement with Houlihan, which allowed Skripka to stay at his residence in Madison to work on “special projects” and only come to work at Tomah for one day a week, usually Wednesdays.

Madison is 90 miles from Tomah. Skripka reportedly rented an apartment in Tomah for a couple years, but soon became dissatisfied and broached the subject with Houlihan, who granted his one-day-a-week request. Apparently since 2014, Skripka has been planning to leave his position and work in tele-medicine at the facility from his Madison home. That hasn’t happened.

The VA confirmed this arrangement started in the spring of 2014. Houlihan allowed this despite the fact that the facility has a marked shortage of psychiatrists.

“For being in a such high level administrative position, overseeing all mental health treatment at the Tomah VA, it seems irresponsible and negligent that he would be allowed to only be physically present at the facility one day a week, especially in light of the scandals there concerning patient care,” one whistleblower told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“It’s obviously impossible to competently manage the entire Mental Health services at a medical center when the top mental health administrator is almost never at the facility,” the whistleblower added.

Numerous officials have received public flack for their role in Simcakoski’s death by lethal drug cocktail.

Davis was fired for her involvement in Jason’s death. Houlihan, former chief of staff, was finally fired in November for retaliation and opioid overprescription after being placed on leave in January.

Tomah facility director Mario DeSanctis was let go in September because of dangerous prescription policies which took place under his leadership. Registered Nurse Lisa Noe, manager of the Mental Health Service line, stepped down from her administrative position. She received a $2,550 bonus last year for performance. (RELATED: ‘Candy Man’ Doctor Finally FIRED From Tomah VA, Whistleblowers Elated)

Skripka earns close to a quarter of a million dollars annually and continues on in a high-level role, despite his infrequent presence at the facility. He received a $2,050 performance bonus last year. The reason Skripka and Noe received bonuses is because they were rated highly by Houlihan himself.

The VA has not proposed any disciplinary action for Skripka.

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