President Barack Obama signed sweeping new narcotics reforms into law Friday that dramatically change the way the Department of Veterans Affairs dispenses and monitors dangerous and addictive opiates.
The Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act was prompted by an investigation published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in January 2015. The story disclosed that veterans at the VA hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin, showed up to appointments stoned on prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants, dozed off and drooled during therapy sessions, and burned themselves with cigarettes.
Congressional hearings and criminal investigations followed, and bipartisan legislation was introduced in the name of Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine who died of an overdose in the Tomah VA’s psychiatric ward while under the care of Dr. David Houlihan, then the hospital’s chief of staff. Some called him the “Candy Man” for his liberal prescription policies.
“We have an opiate crisis in our country,” Simcakoski’s father, Marv, told Reveal. “Sometimes something very bad has to happen for something good to happen, but nobody would have noticed without you.”
The legislation signed Friday creates stronger opioid prescribing guidelines for VA providers, including stricter standards against prescribing narcotics in combination with other drugs such as tranquilizers, and restrictions on prescribing opiates to patients with mental health issues. The law calls for ongoing congressional oversight of the VA’s progress toward meeting the new standards and requires the VA to roll out alternative treatments for veterans dealing with pain.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives in May and was rolled into the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed the Senate last week.
“My goal is to prevent Jason’s tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said in a statement. “We have made these reforms a reality and moved closer to achieving our goal of safer and more effective pain management services for our nation’s veterans.”