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Senator seeks security information after VA overdose death

By BILL GLAUBER | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 27, 2016

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs requesting information on security problems — including an overdose death — at the inpatient drug rehabilitation unit of the Clement J. Zablocki VA in Milwaukee.

"In particular, it appears that veterans and visitors have been able to easily transport illegal drugs and other contraband into the domiciliary unit," Johnson wrote VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald on Tuesday.

"The free flow of illicit substances into the domiciliary has led to reports of multiple veterans overdosing on drugs while receiving treatment at the facility," said Johnson, who chairs the U.S. Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee.

In November, Cole Schuler, 26, a former U.S. Army Ranger from the Fox Valley, died of a heroin overdose in the Zablocki Residential Treatment Program.

Johnson wrote that in a briefing with his staff, "VA officials stated that in the wake of Mr. Schuler's passing, the Zablocki VA increased security checks and monitoring for contraband at the facility. Even with the changes made in the wake of Mr. Schuler's death, the Zablocki VA should work to ensure that other veterans do not have access to illegal drugs in the domiciliary unit."

"After the death of Mr. Schuler, an Administrative Investigation Board (AIB) made 16 recommendations that were reportedly implemented; however, subsequently, another veteran was apparently able to obtain and overdose on heroin while receiving treatment at the facility," Johnson wrote.

Johnson said that the "recent overdose — after Mr. Schuler's death — raises questions about potentially larger problems at the Zablocki VA."

The second overdose did not result in the patient's death.

In his letter, Johnson asked what recommendations were made to improve security and what is the status of the Zablocki VA's implementation of the recommendations.

He also asked for a status update on the VA investigation into Schuler's overdose death, as well as policies the agency is implementing "to prevent illegal drugs from entering VA medical facilities."

Gary Kunich, a spokesman for the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, said officials "welcome the opportunity to answer Senator Johnson's concerns.

"We want to invite him out here so he can see the programs firsthand," Kunich said. "He can see a lot of the changes we've made to prevent any future tragedies."

Kunich said 300 veterans have successfully completed the residential treatment program in the past year.

"We welcome the opportunity to introduce Senator Johnson to meet some of the veterans who have completed the program to hear their stories how the VA has helped them," Kunich said. "A lot of the things that Senator Johnson has talked about we have addressed. We've implemented several different security measures here, including extra cameras, more random searches. We've changed the curfew time."

Previously, Johnson's committee investigated the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center, where a 35-year-old former U.S. Marine named Jason Simcakoski died from a mixture of medications while being treated there in 2014. Earlier this year, Republicans on Johnson's committee concluded a "culture of fear" permeated the facility.

David Houlihan — a psychiatrist who was chief of staff at the Tomah center — was dubbed the "candy man" by some veterans for his supposedly easy and widespread distribution of painkillers to his patients.

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