Tomah VA hospital

The VA Medical Center in Tomah.

File photo

The federal government has reached a $2.3 million settlement with the family of a former Marine who died from a drug overdose in 2014 at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which would bring to a close the family’s wrongful death lawsuit against the government.

The settlement, set out in court papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Madison, would provide about $1.65 million upfront to the widow and daughter of Jason Simcakoski, of Stevens Point, who was 35 when he died on Aug. 30, 2014, at the Short Stay Mental Health Recovery Unit in the Tomah VA’s Community Living Center.

Some of that money, up to $586,000, would pay attorney fees and expenses.

The remaining $659,100 would be set up in annuities for Simcakoski’s widow, Heather Simcakoski, and their daughter, Anaya.

Because the settlement involves a minor, it must be approved by U.S. District Judge James Peterson. A hearing on the settlement will be held Wednesday, when Peterson is expected to hear from a guardian ad litem appointed for Anaya Simcakoski about the reasonableness of the settlement, and how it is to be managed for the girl.

The family sued the government in August 2016, nearly a year after filing a claim against the VA that went unanswered. The lawsuit states that the VA had told the family that it intended to take full responsibility for Simcakoski’s death.

The settlement agreement states that the settlement “should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants or employees, and it is specifically denied that they are liable to the plaintiffs.”

Instead, the settlement is a compromise of disputed claims, the document states, done to avoid the expenses and risks of further litigation.

Simcakoski’s death led to the firing of the Tomah VA’s chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan. Earlier this month, the former head of the medical center, Mario DeSanctis, was allowed to resign, with a $163,000 settlement, after negotiations that followed his firing in 2015.

The Tomah VA came under fire in 2015 after an Inspector General’s report, released after Simcakoski’s death, found that opioid painkillers were being overprescribed by doctors at the medical center, earning it the nickname “Candy Land.”

Simcakoski, who was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2002, had been treated at VA facilities from 2006 to 2014 for a variety of conditions, and was admitted to the Tomah VA’s Acute Psychiatric Unit on Aug. 10, 2014, then transferred to the Short Stay unit.

He was prescribed drugs there to treat his pain, including Suboxone. The morning of Aug. 30, 2014, he was so sedated he could barely speak, his family said, and later that afternoon was found unresponsive. He died after life-saving attempts were made, although they were not started for about 10 minutes after he was found.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office said Simcakoski died from mixed drug toxicity. A review by the VA Office of Inspector General found that doctors who prescribed opioid drugs to Simcakoski failed to talk with him about the risks of the treatment, and noted delays in the start of CPR to Simcakoski and the lack of medication at the Tomah VA to reverse drug overdoses.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.