County DA says overprescribing opiates to veterans may be ‘systemic problem’

by Dana Ferguson Associated Press

The Department of Veterans Affairs has moved too slowly in its investigation of interstate drug distribution, a Wisconsin district attorney said Thursday in a letter to the agency’s secretary and members of Congress.

Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco said in the letter that a California VA facility lagged in its probe of a veteran who dealt VA-prescribed opiates through the U.S. Postal Service.

DeCecco said the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Division of Criminal investigation launched a probe in 2013 after they were notified that the Nathan Escoto, 44, shipped marijuana from California to a Sheboygan County residence. He said the VA prescribed Escoto, a military veteran, as many as 600 oxycodone pills a month.

The letter says Escoto also dealt oxycodone pills through the mail and charged $15 per pill. A VA inspector in California said he wouldn’t conclude his investigation for a year.

The lack of supervision by the Veterans’ Administration in cases like these of ludicrous amounts of prescribed opiate medications not only casts that agency in a bad light, but unfairly reflects on those veterans who truly need that type of medication and assistance,’’ DeCecco said.

A spokeswoman from the VA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Escoto has since been convicted and incarcerated on charges of possession of marijuana and oxycodone with intention to distribute in California. After he completed his sentence in California last month, Escoto was extradited to Wisconsin and faced felony charges of manufacturing and delivering THC in volumes greater than 10,000 grams and manufacturing and delivering narcotics. He pleaded no contest on both accounts last month. Escoto was sentenced to 138 days in jail and four years of probation.

In his letter, DeCecco said he suspects opiate overprescribing practices that were reported at a Tomah VA hospital might ``be more of a systemic problem.’’

The VA in March reported that patients at the Tomah medical center were more likely than patients at other VA hospitals to receive high doses of painkillers. The VA, the VA Office of the Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration are still investigating reports of overprescribing practices and retaliatory behavior at the facility.


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