Colby’s death is one of at least five fatal overdoses with direct links to the Tomah VA while Houlihan was in charge. Some, like Colby, overdosed primarily on prescription medications. That was true for Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old former Marine who died in the Tomah VA’s psychiatric ward in August after Houlihan suggested the opiate Suboxone be added to a prescribed mixture of 14 medications.
Others happened when prescription abuse accelerated into heroin addiction. This progression, seen around the country, contributes to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that the agency’s researchers have pegged attwice the national average.
“The effects produced by oxycodone and hydrocodone are indistinguishable from the effects produced by heroin,” said psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of Phoenix House, which runs more than 100 drug treatment clinics nationwide. “If we don’t see that the many veterans who became addicted are provided with effective addiction treatment, we will continue to see veterans turn to heroin, and we will continue to see very high overdose death rates.”
—Aaron Glantz, writing about opiate overprescription among veterans for Reveal News. Glantz’s investigation focused on the community around the Tomah VA in Wisconsin, where opiate prescriptions have skyrocketed under the hospital’s chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan.