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Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA

By   /   January 30, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 41 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has named Victoria Brahm to lead the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center.

Brahm has served since October 2015 as acting director of the southwest Wisconsin hospital once described as “Candyland” for its opioid prescription practices.

Photo by Ameriforce.net

NEW BOSS: Victoria Brahm, director of the Tomah VA Medical Center, discusses a report that hundreds of veterans had been exposed to infectious diseases at the hospital late last year. Brahm was brought in to “fix” the troubled medical center.

While VA officials are praising Brahm for her leadership and celebrating her appointment, sources inside the medical center say prescription drug abuse and other health care delivery concerns remain a problem.

Brahm stepped into the acting leadership role following months of turmoil at the Tomah facility.

Earlier this month, a state agency took away the medical license of Dr. David Houlihan, the former chief of staff and acting medical director at Tomah. Houlihan, who was known as the “Candy Man” after multiple federal investigations found he overprescribed painkillers, was fired in November 2015. He is prohibited from practicing medicine in Wisconsin again, and Houlihan’s disciplinary action will be entered into a national physicians database.

RELATED: Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license

The initial story, broken by the Center for Investigative Reporting, documented the death of a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran who died in August 2014 of a toxic cocktail of prescription medications while at the hospital.

Brahm was brought in as a “fixer.”

One source who works at the hospital told Wisconsin Watchdog that many of his fellow employees read the recent news about Houlihan as a step in the right direction, but much at the facility is still in need of fixing.

“While this has changed some ways drugs are processed, the problem with over-prescribing and veterans’ abuse of medication still lingers,” said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “We have many veterans who lash out at the pharmacy and pharmacist and technicians who see the dispensing practices as insane.”

Matthew Gowan, USN (Ret.), public affairs officer for the Tomah VA medical center, said there is no doubt in his mind that quality of care and veterans’ satisfaction with their care have improved under Brahm’s leadership.

He said the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative has been very successful, although hospital officials hear criticism on “both ends of the spectrum.”

“We have some who say, ‘You’re just stoning veterans out of their minds over here,’ and then you have others who say, ‘You’re just taking needed medications away from veterans,’” Gowan told Wisconsin Watchdog Monday. “It’s really more something in the middle. Each veteran is being looked at by multiple teams. We’re talking about prescription practices attempting to deal with people suffering with chronic pain plus mental health issues.”

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, the VA official said. It’s an individual treatment plan to fight both pain and addiction.

“I see nothing but a bright future for Tomah and firmly believe in our collective team,” Brahm wrote Friday to the medical center’s employees in an email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.“Will there be some tasks we have to face? Sure, and we’ll continue to pursue the ‘harder right’ and do what’s best for our nation’s heroes that we have the honor of serving.”

Not everybody was that optimistic.

Ryan Honl, a former Tomah VAMC employee and federal whistleblower, said the “foxes who protected Houlihan” are now officially in charge of the hen houses at Tomah.

Honl and others have been critical of the VA for bringing in Brahm to lead the medical center.

In a sworn deposition released last year, VA regional office Network Director Renee Oshinski, said that before the Tomah scandal broke, Brahm had received significant evidence of opiate abuse. Brahm, who was the regional office’s nurse executive at the time, determined that there was no truth to the reports, according to the deposition.

“I was astounded that they were all unsubstantiated,” Oshinski told investigators from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, as reported in the Daily Caller.“With the number of things here, I would have thought there would have been some partially substantiated or whatever. I mean, just based on the number, that it’s not a normal response that we would have.”

Myriad federal investigations and media accounts have since proved valid the whistleblower reports of abuse inside the medical center.

“An ongoing look at Dr. Houlihan’s prescribing practices” was “something that Vicki Brahm and Donna Leslie (VISN 12 Pharmacy Executive), were involved in” as part of their duties in the regional office, Oshinski said in the deposition.

Oshinski said Houlihan and Brahm worked closely on hospital matters.

“Dr. Houlihan would choose to call (Then-VISN 12 Network Director) Dr. Murawsky [the regional office’s director] or Vicki Brahm,” she said under oath.

On Friday, Oshinski was “pleased to announce” that Brahm was officially selected as director of the Tomah VA hospital.

Part of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
  1. After damaging silence, Baldwin now calls for probe of troubled VA center
  2. Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’
  3. Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘coverup’
  4. Baldwin’s public relations team kicks into high gear following ethics complaint
  5. Ethics watchdog urges Senate committee to investigate Baldwin
  6. Tammy Baldwin’s political fixer is helping Hillary attack voter ID
  7. Senate committee asking if FBI missed the call in veteran’s death at VA
  8. When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans
  9. Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?
  10. Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says
  11. Does government union chief’s threat show AFGE’s hand on veterans care?
  12. What would Russ Feingold’s 1992 self say to the 2015 version?
  13. Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’
  14. Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war
  15. PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts
  16. Sources: Ron Kind received call from Jason Simcakoski not long before Marine’s tragic death
  17. Captain Campaign Finance Reform, Russ Feingold, changes ‘dark money’ tune
  18. Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal
  19. Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke
  20. Ron Kind now solving Tomah VA scandal one press release at a time
  21. Tammy Baldwin silent on her failures as she blasts Tomah VA medical center
  22. Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems
  23. Feingold’s facts fail again in face of Tomah scandal
  24. Senate field hearing to shine more light on Tomah VA scandal
  25. Tomah VA supervisor accused of misconduct gets promoted
  26. Senate hearing to look deeper into scandal-plagued Tomah VA hospital
  27. Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal
  28. Report: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failures’
  29. Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’
  30. Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital
  31. VA union holds rally to save itself, Tomah whistleblower says
  32. Sound familiar? Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth accused of retaliation at VA
  33. Emails say Tomah VA patient reached out to Feingold, Kind, in 2008 about abuse
  34. Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis
  35. Veteran jumps out of third-floor window at Tomah VA hospital
  36. Tomah VA employee: ‘We have forgotten who we work for’
  37. Congressional committees want answers on Tomah VA hospital
  38. Senators ask Pence, Trump transition team, to hold troubled VA accountable
  39. Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story
  40. Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license
  41. Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA
  42. Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction
  43. VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges
  44. Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care
  45. VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind
  46. Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens
  47. Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.