The Wisconsin Medical Examining Board suspended the medical license of former Tomah VA Clinic Director Dr. David Houlihan, after an an attorney for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) called his practice of medicine "downright dangerous" at a hearing Wednesday morning.
Dr. Houlihan was suspended from his leadership role at the Tomah VA Clinic in January 2015 and then fired in November, after an investigation by the agency found rampant over-prescription of opiates under his direction that resulted in the death of a 35 year-old male veteran. The case earned Houlihan the unflattering nickname "Candyman."
Despite Dr. Houlihan's firing and the investigation that concluded he "engaged in improper opioid prescribing practices and retaliatory behavior" against his VA employees - he still had a license to practice medicine in Wisconsin until Wednesday afternoon.
DSPS took no action to revoke Dr. Houlihan's license until he began a private psychiatry practice in La Crosse last month.
"If ever there was a case for summary suspension, this is it," DSPS Attorney Yolanda McGowan told Board members.
McGowan laid out the case that - while serving as the Tomah VA chief in 2014 - Dr. Houlihan added a prescription of the opioid medication Suboxone for a 35 year-old patient already taking numerous tranquilizers classified as benzodiazepines - ultimately leading to the patient's death.
McGowan also testified that in examining 27 other cases chosen at random, Dr. Houlihan only met the standard of care for his patients in two of them.
Speaking to 27 News in Madison after the hearing, Dr. Houlihan said he feels the public has never been able to hear the truth about what happened during his time at the Tomah VA clinic.
"I find it incredibly difficult for myself, incredibly difficult for my family - the people who know me - to not have the actual facts come out," said Dr. Houlihan. "I am a good doctor, I do care very much for my patients. There is a need for good care, great care for our veterans and I think my record really has shown that I've done that."
Speaking for Dr. Houlihan in the hearing, La Crosse Attorney Frank Doherty told the Board his client was scapegoated by the VA and asked members to hold off on any ruling until Dr. Houlihan gets his first chance to challenge the VA's findings on April 11. That's when the VA will hear Houlihan's appeal of his termination.
But McGowan said the DSPS investigation was independent and showed cause for suspension.
"It all adds up to probable cause to believe he was engaged in conduct such that it is imperative to the health, safety and welfare of the public today," said McGowan.
After hearing both arguments, the Board issued what is known as a "summary suspension." Under that, Dr. Houlihan's medical license was suspended as soon as the written order was put in the mail to him Wednesday afternoon. Dr. Houlihan is expected to request a "hearing to show cause" to argue the suspension should not be continued. Such a hearing would have to be held within 20 days of Dr. Houlihan's request.
Dr. Houlihan told 27 News the DSPS investigation led to a rush to judgment.
"When findings are done under political and media pressure versus a very much longer, more in-depth investigation by a group that is supposed to do this - the Inspector General - and they go over a number of years and come to a completely different finding, there's something wrong in our system, quite frankly," said Dr. Houlihan.
The VA Office of the Inspector General conducted a three-year investigation of the Tomah VA clinic, but came under fire by Congress for failing to properly discipline Dr. Houlihan and fix the problem of opioid over-prescribing going on there. Acting IG Richard Griffin stepped down from his post in July 2015 as a result.
Dr. Houlihan said Wisconsin's congressional delegation treated the IG's office unfairly because they felt political pressure to do so, after a report about the death of that 35 year-old veteran emerged in January 2015.
You can read documents from the case DSPS investigators presented to the board here. They follow the schedule of the Board's agenda items for Wednesday's meeting.
The full interview with Dr. Houlihan after Wednesday's meeting can be viewed above this story.