Saturday, July 20, 2019
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (at the podium) was at the Tomah VA Tuesday to discuss it success story to transition away from the use of prescription drugs to treat veterans. To her left are Linda and Marv Simcakoski and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. Contributed photo

Tomah VA now seen as a leader in veteran treatment

The Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center has come full circle in dealing with its use of prescription drugs to treat veterans.

In 2014, Jason Simcakoski died from a drug overdose while he was being treated at Tomah VA. Five years later, his parents, Marv and Linda Simcakoski, continue in their effort to change the way veterans are cared for by moving away from prescription drugs.

On Tuesday VA Secretary Robert Wilkie visited the Tomah VA with Sen. Tammy Baldwin to recognize the Tomah VA for its efforts since 2014, when at one point, the Tomah VA was coined 'Candy Land' for the use of prescription medication to treat veterans. The Simcakoski's also shared the podium with Wilkie and Baldwin.

During this period of change the Tomah VA has transitioned from use of opiods, known for being addictive,  to use of physical therapists who work with veterans to reach the source of pain. There are also programs that involve Tai Chi, aroma therapy, basic physical exercise and yoga. The emphasis is more on holistic treatments. Other treatments include music therapy and acupuncture.

“It’s been a long journey but with the help of everybody here, we wouldn’t be where we are today and we want to continue that. We feel that any family should not have to go through what we had to do with our son. Something bad happened but we’re trying to make the best of it for other people,” said Linda Simcakoski.

Tomah VA Medical Center provides care to more than 26,000 veterans in Wisconsin and Minnesota each year.

The Tomah V.A. is at the center of change for Veteran Affairs centers across the country. It's a shift from a past shadowed by scandal.

"This facility has quite a story to tell and at the heart of that story are Linda and Marvin Simkowski who turned a family tragedy into hope," said Baldwin.

Mar Simcakoski is pleased to see changes in place at the Tomah VA. His family has been key in the re-opening of the Tomah VA golf course as part of its treatment program for veterans.

"We're trying to change the thought process here. This is a flagship facility," said Marvin Simcakoski.

Wilkie outlined the largest budget the V.A. has ever seen at $220 billion.

"Of that $220 billion, $9 billion is set aside just for mental health and we have another $2 billion in there for opioid addiction programs and $250 million for suicide awareness," Wilkie said.

"We are in the process of changing a culture because of what happened here," Wilke said. "We are going away from old methods of helping our veterans to a whole-health approach that enlists everything we know about making our veterans safe, making them feel better, but making them feel better with an eye toward complete recovery."

The VA works to implement the Whole Health program across the entire VA health care system, Wilkie added.

Because of  what occurred at the Tomah VA, the prescription rate of opioids across America has dropped by 51 percent and in the last year, veterans have returned 124 tons of opioids back to the VA, Wilkie said.

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