Officials at Wisconsin’s troubled Tomah VA Medical Center confirmed today that its former director, Mario DeSanctis, is no longer employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – the latest fallout from Reveal’s revelations of improper prescription practices at the hospital.

“The search process for a new Director will be initiated immediately,” the acting director, John Rohrer, wrote in an email to hospital employees this morning.

The VA had reassigned DeSanctis in March and appointed Rohrer interim chief of the facility, once dubbed “Candy Land” because of its seemingly unrestrained reliance on opiate prescriptions – sometimes leading to tragic consequences.

Last month, the VA’s chief watchdog office concluded that a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs had killed Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski while he was being treated in the hospital’s psychiatric ward for anxiety that had left him feeling suicidal.

The hospital recently announced that the acute psychiatric unit would close temporarily as of Friday “(d)ue to critical psychiatric staff shortages.” Patients were to be transferred to VA facilities in Madison or Milwaukee, or to non-VA facilities.

Mario DeSanctis, director of the VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., said his $8,025 bonus was “warranted and justified” even though the facility was being investigated by the agency's inspector general.
Mario DeSanctis, former director of the Tomah, Wis., VA hospital once dubbed “Candy Land” for its overprescription of opiates, is no longer working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to officials.Credit: Public Facebook page Credit: Public Facebook page

“We intend to re-open the unit but will only do so when we have the necessary psychiatric staff to do so safely,” Rohrer said in the statement, which outlined a series of initiatives, including advertising job openings and increasing starting psychiatrist salaries to $240,000.

In its August report, the VA’s inspector general blamed Simcakoski’s death on “mixed drug toxicity” after being prescribed more than a dozen drugs, including buprenorphine, a potent medication distributed under the name Suboxone that often is used to treat opiate addictions.

The report blamed a breakdown in procedures, including the failure of psychiatrists at the hospital to adequately inform patients of the risks some drugs posed and for neglecting to get written consent before administering dangerous drugs.

His death was one of at least five fatal overdoses linked to the Tomah VA hospital while under the charge of chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan – nicknamed the “Candy Man” by some because of his prolific prescribing practices. A Reveal investigation earlier this year found that opiate prescriptions at the Tomah facility sharply increased under Houlihan’s watch.

Hospital spokesman Matthew Gowan said in an email that Houlihan remains on administrative leave. One of the doctors involved in the Simcakoski case, Dr. Ronda Davis, was terminated in July.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at

Bobby Caina Calvan is the collaborations editor for Reveal. He was most recently director of operations for The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based nonprofit that awards grants to freelance and independent investigative journalists. He thrives on watchdog journalism. He's worked in some of the country's best newsrooms, including The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee and the Detroit Free Press. He's covered the war in Iraq, the national debate over health care, the 2012 presidential race and other high-profile elections.

While Calvan has worked in some of the country's biggest news outlets, his roots are firmly in local news. His career transcends platforms, and he has produced stories for print, digital, radio and television. He spent a year on a journalism diversity initiative in Nebraska called The Heartland Project, where he spearheaded collaborations with newsrooms across the state to enhance coverage of communities of color and LGBT issues. Inclusive journalism is in his DNA, and so is his strong advocacy for mentoring the next generation of journalists.

Calvan grew up on a dairy farm at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Waimanalo, Hawaii – which might explain why he spent his first year of college at New York University and followed his sense of adventure into a career in journalism. He completed his college career at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in legal studies. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.