The psychiatrist at the center of the Tomah VA Medical Center’s over-prescription scandal has had his medical license restored as the VA holds a hearing on his dismissal.
Wisconsin’s Medical Examining Board last month suspended the license of Dr. David Houlihan, the psychiatrist whom some patients dubbed “Candy Man,” citing his excessive prescriptions of narcotic painkillers.
But an administrative law judge with Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services ruled after a two-day hearing that public safety does not require an emergency suspension of his license until a companion case involving allegations of misconduct is resolved.
“(T)his decision does not determine whether Respondent engaged in unprofessional conduct or negligence or whether his license will ultimately be subject to disciplinary action. It certainly does not make any judgment with respect to whether Respondent is a good doctor or psychiatrist,” the decision states. “Rather, it only concludes that the Division has not met its burden of establishing that the emergency suspension of Respondent’s license should continue while the case on the merits of the Division’s allegations is pending.”
In its March order, the board outlined the case of an unnamed patient whose medical history matches that of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran who died from a drug overdose while at the hospital in 2014.
The board determined Houlihan, 52, did not act as “a minimally competent” physician in prescribing Suboxone, commonly used to treat opioid dependence, and that he acted outside the scope of his psychiatry practice when he treated patients with chronic pain, often prescribing opioids in “dosages greatly exceeding the recommended daily amount.”
According to the judge’s findings, Houlihan treated some of the VA’s most difficult patients, who suffered multiple treatment-resistant mental illness.
Houlihan, who joined the VA in 2002 and rose to be chief of staff and acting medical director, also intimidated other VA staff to the point that they felt unable to confront him about potentially unsafe dosages he was prescribing, the board found.
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Those findings echoed allegations first made public in January 2015 by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which reported that some patients had called the facility “Candy Land” because it was so easy to obtain narcotics.
Houlihan is one of several VA officials to lose their jobs in the fallout over that story. He was placed on leave in January while the VA investigated the allegations and was fired Nov. 9.
According to the law judge decision, issued Friday, Houlihan argued he was fired only because of the CIR report, “which generated significant political attention and controversy.” Houlihan said he had received positive evaluations and promotions prior to its publication.
“There is no evidence in the record to suggest that at any time during his approximately 13 years at Tomah VA, he was instructed to reduce medication dosages or have those whom he oversaw do so or that he change his own or others’ practices with respect to prescribing medications in combination for patients,” the order states.
The VA this week is holding a closed-door hearing on Houlihan’s dismissal, according to an email sent to Tomah VA employees.
The email from acting director Victoria Brahm said media would not be allowed on the campus during the week-long hearing and instructs employees to call VA police if they spot reporters not being escorted by the facility’s public information officer.