Deadly, Scandal-Ridden VA Hospital Addresses Crisis With … Interior Designer

Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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After years of sedating patients with dangerous combinations of drugs, a former chief of staff whose medical license is in jeopardy, and supposed budget woes, the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital known as “Candy Land” has a plan to fix its problems: Hire a full-time interior designer.

The Tomah, Wisconsin, hospital posted a job opening for the $77,000 decorating position Tuesday. The person hired will be in charge of “accoutrements” like “window treatments.” The VA wants someone who is either a current federal employee or has a “Ph.D. or equivalent doctoral degree” in interior design.

The hiring move follows Tomah’s “100-day plan” for reform, drafted in response to withering criticism from the media, Congress and the department’s inspector general after multiple investigations found opiate prescription practices wildly out of step with medical norms.

That plan had almost nothing to do with veterans, violations of medical protocol, or silencing of critics, and instead called for more racial minorities to be hired, to give VA employees “praise” and to create an “Employee Wellness Center.”

“Each strategy has a purpose and has been requested by the hospital stakeholders,” hospital spokesman Matthew Gowan said.

Earlier this month, acting hospital director Victoria Brahm and Gowan said employees should call the police on any reporters they spotted on the premises seeking to cover Tomah managers meeting with the now-former chief of staff, David Houlihan, all week about whether he would be reinstated to his job, even though the state had barred him from practicing medicine.

Charles Davis, a hospital employee who was supposed to be helping veterans, was recently jailed on charges that he molested multiple female vets.

Video from the facility recently captured one nurse’s aide physically attacking a mentally ill patient who was calmly trying to avoid the attack, while another VA employee observed it and didn’t report it. The video shows the attacking employee lied to police about the incident.

The room’s decorating accoutrements, however, appeared adequate.

A focus on appearances has often seemed to be VA’s way of covering for deeper operational problems–starting with the nationwide cover up of veterans waiting months for important medical appointments. Officials falsified data to make it appear wait-times were less than was actually the case.

Decorations have been a problem for VA elsewhere besides Tomah. The department’s newest hospital construction project, in Colorado, went $1 billion over budget, and contractors were so frustrated by a lack of planning that they walked off the job. But the massive Denver project featured “custom walls, custom wood and custom floors,” and a glass concourse stretching the length of four football fields.

In September 2014 alone, the VA spent $1.8 million on artwork, with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake pointing out that the VA almost always cites lack of sufficient funding an an excuse for the department’s many failures.

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