Veterans

FBI's role in Tomah VA case under Senate scrutiny

A Senate committee has asked the FBI to explain why a veteran who died at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center contacted law enforcement before his accidental overdose death in August 2014.

Heather Simcakoski, the widow of Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, testified in March that her husband sent texts and left voice messages with law enforcement agencies charging that some patients at the hospital were selling their prescription pain medications.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee verified that Simcakoski had placed multiple calls to administrators at the Tomah VA, the Tomah police department and the FBI field office in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 2013.

Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., wrote to FBI director James Comey on Monday asking for more information on the nature of the communications as well as the bureau's response.

Heather Simcakoski told committee members that her husband's complaints went unheeded and his reports disappeared.

"Some patients were making so much money that they had saved enough … to put a down payment on a house," Simcakoski testified. "I would like to understand who was responsible for [Jason's] reports, where they are and why no one did anything."

The Center for Investigative Reporting published a report in January on problems at the Tomah VA hospital, finding that the number of pain prescriptions quintupled from 2004 to 2012, with rates rising sharply after Dr. David Houlihan, a psychiatrist, was hired as chief of staff.

The report said the facility had earned the nickname "Candy Land" among veterans for its profuse prescribing practices and Houlihan was known as the "Candy Man."

According to the report, the number of prescriptions for four common opiates — oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and morphine — soared from 8,370 in 2006 to 24,135 in 2014.

Johnson said his committee is continuing an investigation into the deaths of several veterans at the medical center, charges of drug diversion and sales and whistleblower retaliation.

The committee also is scrutinizing the VA Office of Inspector General investigation into the allegations as well as the Justice Department's work regarding the charges.

Johnson asked Comey to respond by Sept. 28.

Jason Simcakoski died from an accidental drug overdose while he was a patient in the facility's short-stay mental health facility.

The VA IG's investigation found that staff at the facility failed to properly prescribe and monitor his medications and blundered the medical response when Simcakoski was found unresponsive.

At the time of his death, he had taken 13 prescription medications within a 24-hour period, including several known to cause respiratory depression.

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