- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin’s Medical Examining Board determined that a former Tomah VA Medical Center doctor accused of overprescribing opiates likely engaged in unprofessional conduct - its second such finding and one that could eventually lead to him losing his medical license.

Former chief of staff David Houlihan, who was nicknamed “candy man” by some patients for allegedly freely prescribing the painkillers, was fired from the Tomah hospital in November and has since set up a private psychiatry practice in La Crosse.

The Medical Examining Board on Wednesday found probable cause that Houlihan engaged in unprofessional conduct with regard to his overall practices, according to Jeff Weigand, assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services, which oversees the board. It didn’t release the details of what led to its determination or the tally of its vote, which took place during a closed session.

The board previously found probable cause that Houlihan engaged in unprofessional conduct in his treatment of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old patient who died in 2014.

Houlihan’s attorney, Frank Doherty, didn’t respond to a voicemail Thursday. The case will next go before an administrative law judge, who will make recommendations to the board for a final decision on whether to discipline Houlihan.

The lengthy process of whether to strip Houlihan of his medical license is one of the lingering threads from a 2014 investigation into the Tomah VA that found doctors there were over-prescribing opioids, earning it the nickname “Candy Land.”

Simcakoski, who was a marine veteran, died at the facility from “mixed drug toxicity” five months after the inspector general closed the case and days after Houlihan added another opiate to the 14 drugs Simcakoski was already prescribed.

The board determined that Houlihan “failed to act as a minimally competent and reasonable physician” and was negligent in his care of Simcakoski.

A U.S. Senate committee probe released in May also found that VA investigators suspected Houlihan and a nurse practitioner “appeared to be impaired” during interviews in 2012, but no action was taken. Doherty said after the report’s release that claims that Houlihan was impaired were “nonsense.”

The board’s investigations into Houlihan have stretched out for more than a year, and Houlihan is allowed to practice until a final determination is made on his license. That’s common practice during such investigations and allows due process for physicians, but it has raised concerns among veterans’ advocates in Houlihan’s case.

The Medical Examining Board did suspend Houlihan’s license preemptively in March after news that he’d set up the private psychiatry clinic in La Crosse, but an administrative law judge reinstated it a month later, concluding the department didn’t adequately show the suspension was necessary.

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Follow Bryna Godar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bgodar

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