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Congressional Panels Probe Opiate Prescriptions At Wis. VA Hospital


The small town of Tomah, Wis., is getting some high-profile visitors today. Two congressional committees have left Washington and will hold a hearing in the town of about 10,000 people. The Senate Homeland Security Committee and House Veterans' Affairs Committee have questions about the hospital in town that's run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is alleged that patients there were prescribed excessive dosages of opiates to treat their chronic pain. Lawmakers are concerned that what took place in Tomah could be taking place at other VA hospitals as well. Here's Wisconsin Public Radio's Maureen McCollum.

MAUREEN MCCOLLUM, BYLINE: Opiates, like morphine, were being prescribed so freely at the Tomah VA that the hospital earned the nickname Candyland. Army veteran Bryan Stephey is a patient there. When he first heard the name he laughed it off.

BRYAN STEPHEY: I think a lot of people are familiar with that song - "The Candy Man" song from "Willy Wonka," yeah. And people would actually whistle that in the hallways. You know, I mean, it was a very pervasive culture.

MCCOLLUM: The problem at Tomah was in some ways not different from VA hospitals everywhere. Lots of patients getting prescriptions for opiates, but at Tomah on the dosages were much higher. The doctor in charge was David Houlihan. He got the nickname the Candy Man.

STEPHEY: I have to be very adamant that I got very good care from him. However, I question his care of others.

MCCOLLUM: Several Tomah VA staff questioned Houlihan, too. Dr. Houlihan's lawyer couldn't comment now, but in news reports Houlihan has said he did nothing wrong. Now lawmakers in Washington are paying attention. Members of two congressional committees will be in Tomah today to hear from former employees of the hospital and family members of vets treated there. Representative Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, will be one of the lawmakers leading the hearing.

CONGRESSMAN JEFF MILLER: We have said for a long time that sending a veteran out of the door with a bag full of pills is not a solution.

MCCOLLUM: The VA has acknowledged problems at Tomah, but notes that the number of Tomah patients on opiates is lower than the national average. Miller says that just proves there is an opiate epidemic. According to the VA, 60 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from chronic pain. Opiates often help them deal with it, but Miller says more has to be done to get patients off narcotics.

MILLER: If a doctor gives something to a veteran he's going to take the doctor at his word and go out the door. And, unfortunately, in too many cases veterans are being harmed or become addicted to these very addictive drugs.

MCCOLLUM: Top VA officials say when it comes to treating chronic pain there are no easy alternatives to opiates. Nationally, the VA has launched an opioid safety initiative. In Tomah, a committee of doctors, pharmacists and psychologists meet to review the charts of chronic opiate users and to look at treatments like aquatic therapy and chiropractic care.


RYAN HONL: But this is an opportunity to really reform the VA.

MCCOLLUM: That's Ryan Honl, one of the few witnesses scheduled to testify today. He used to work at the Tomah VA and helped alert officials to some of the issues there.


HONL: The danger is that it's going to be looked at just something that's taken care of and then close the book on it, put a nice little bow, wrap a ribbon around it and say fixed the problem when all those fires are symptoms of a far larger problem, which is a lack of accountability.

MCCOLLUM: In Tomah, some are being held accountable. Dr. Houlihan and a nurse practitioner were placed on administrative leave. Separate investigations are looking into whether the Tomah VA played a role in at least three veterans' deaths. For NPR News, I'm Maureen McCollum in La Crosse, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen McCollum is a Wisconsin Public Radio reporter based in La Crosse covering a variety of topics in the southwest region of the state. She also hosts and helps produce a weekly regional WPR program, Newsmakers.