MADISON, Wis. –The “Candy Man” cannot practice medicine in Wisconsin ever again.
That’s the ruling of the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.
Dr. David Houlihan, the former chief of staff and acting medical director at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, was fired in November 2015 following multiple reports that he oversaw a staff that overprescribed opiates. The initial story, broken by the Center for Investigative Reporting, documented the death of a 35 year-old Marine veteran who died in August 2014 of a toxic cocktail of prescription medications while at the hospital.
Houlihan was known as the “Candy Man” in and around the hospital for his alleged opioid prescription practices.
In a deal announced Wednesday, the Department of Safety and Professional Services ordered the mental health professional to permanently surrender his license and registration. Houlihan may not practice medicine in Wisconsin again and the ruling will be placed in a national physician database. In exchange, state regulators have agreed to drop their investigation into the doctor’s conduct.
Safety and Professional Services found Houlihan failed to provide appropriate care to at least 22 veterans and engaged in misconduct over many years.
“This agreement will not bring back the veterans he harmed, the employee he drove to suicide, or other whistleblowers whose reputations he destroyed, but I am at least happy he won’t be seeing patients in Wisconsin again,” said Ryan Honl, a former Tomah employee and whistleblower who helped bring to light allegations of misconduct.
“This news brings to mind the Wisconsin veterans and families who were affected by the tragedies at the Tomah VA Medical Center,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh in a statement. Johnson is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which released a 359-page report in May 2016 detailing “systematic failures and preventable tragedies” at the hospital.
“As my committee’s investigation also found, the Tomah VA and Houlihan repeatedly failed to honor this nation’s promises to the finest among us. Our veterans deserve world class care, as well as accountability for those who fail to provide it,” Johnson said.
In April, Administrative Law Judge Jennifer Nashold restored Houlihan’s medical license, overturning the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board’s emergency suspension. Nashold said the board acted hastily in suspending Houlihan’s license while an investigation into his conduct continued.
Houlihan had established a private psychiatry practice early in 2016 as the investigation dragged on.
The Senate report noted Houlihan was promoted to the chief position at Tomah in 2004, despite previous charges against the psychiatrist from the Iowa State Board of Medical Examiners that he had “inappropriate professional boundaries” with a patient. The VA did not formally address the Iowa allegations until 2009, but by that time VA regional leadership determined the matter was “resolved.”
Houlihan was at the helm in November 2007, when Tomah VA veteran Kraig Ferrington died from “poly medication overdose.” Ferrington had been discharged less than 24 hours before. Investigations determined there were deficiencies in the medical center’s medication management.
“(T)here is a general concern regarding the number of medications (Ferrington) was on, and the potential interactions among them,” one VA consultant wrote, according to the committee report.
In June 2009, a Drug Enforcement Administration investigator interviewed Noelle Johnson, a pharmacist at the facility who was fired after questioning prescriptions. She showed the DEA 10 examples of patients who had prescriptions that were either too high in dosage or too long in duration, according to the report.
After being fired on July 14, 2009, Dr. Christopher Kirkpatrick died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Prior to his death, Kirkpatrick had raised concerns about overprescribing practices at the medical center.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whose office was criticized early on for failing to heed whistleblower warnings, called the ruling “welcome news.”
“I believe (Houlihan) has no business treating our nation’s veterans or any citizen in Wisconsin,” the Madison Democrat said in a statement.
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