Congress sends opioid bill honoring Simcakoski to president

Published: Jul. 13, 2016 at 3:59 PM CDT
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A massive legislative package many lawmakers say will help curb the nation’s opioid epidemic, including Veteran’s Affairs reforms honoring Stevens Point Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski, is headed to President Barack Obama’s desk.

The 35-year-old died after improper medical care at the Tomah VA Medical Center in 2014.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, said once the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act is in effect, it will require those in the VA prescribing opioid painkillers to be better trained and follow new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

“My goal is to prevent Jason’s tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families,” Baldwin said in a statement. “With this vote, we have moved closer to achieving our goal of safer and more effective pain management services for our nation’s veterans, and with President Obama’s signature, we will make these reforms a reality.”

The 12 step CDC checklist includes first using prescription alternatives like physical therapy and non-opioid prescriptions. If a provider determines an opioid is required, the guidelines say low doses should be used, and patients should be monitored through regular follow-up appointments.

The training requirement, Baldwin said, will also include teaching providers how to avoid prescribing dangerous drug combinations.

A 2015 Inspector General's report found two of Simcakoski's psychiatrists did not follow consent rules. He ended up overdosing on a deadly combination of 14 prescription drugs, including opiates. The report also showed VA staff were also slow to respond to that overdose and did not know how to properly perform CPR or use defibrillators. More than an hour also passed before staff administered an opiate antidote.

Baldwin said she is most excited about the provision changing the role of the patient advocate system.

“In Jason’s case the patient advocate in the reporting structure of this hospital reported to the very same person that was over prescribing and overseeing Jason’s care,” Baldwin said. “This creates an Office of Patient Advocacy in the central office. So the patient advocate can report things that are concerning to them and patients and families.”

Baldwin said that will allow patients to get prompt action.

As NewsChannel 7 Investigates first reported in February, the Tomah VA has already implemented many of these changes.

Both Baldwin’s bill and Rep. Ron Kind’s Jason Simcakoski PROMISE Act are included in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, made up of 12 total bills.

“I was pleased to see the Senate follow in the House’s footsteps and pass this important legislation, to address the opiate epidemic and give veterans and their families the tools they need and the accountability they deserve,” Kind, D-Wiscosnin, said in a statement. “Much of the credit for this victory lies with the Simcakoski family, who have worked tirelessly with our office and others to make sure no other family has to go through what they have and create a legacy Jason would be proud of.”

In a statement, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who previously held a Pewaukee field hearing on Wisconsin’s epidemic, said numerous opioid tragedies are why, in part, he decided to co-sponsor the Simcakoski legislation.

“We have only begun to grapple with this incredibly complex problem,” Johnson said in a statement. “This bill is an important bipartisan step that will expand resources and tools available to states and communities for prevention and treatment. It will build upon bipartisan efforts in Wisconsin.”

The Senate approved the bill, 92-2, on Wednesday. It now goes to President Barack Obama.

The measure, as whole, also creates grants and other programs aimed at addressing drug abuse, especially heroin and opioids.

There were more than 47,000 U.S. drug abuse fatalities in 2014 -- double the death rate in 2000.

Democrats complained the election-year bill does not include money to pay for its programs, but said it was better to back the measure and push for more money in future spending bills.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.