A major scandal continues to unfold at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin. The Department of Veterans Affairs has released a preliminary report that a few MD’s at Tomah, which serves military vets in Wisconsin and Minnesota, were writing too many opioid prescriptions too easily to too many patients and for doses too high. The VA has found patients were unduly exposed to harm and risk of harm from their doctors’ prescribing patterns, and that a “culture of fear,” which from what I can tell was the intimidation of possible whistleblowers, existed at the hospital. The hospital and the doctors had such a reputation that patients referred to Tomah as “Candyland” and one doctor as the Candy Man. It’s bitterly ironic that patients who served our country in war may have been treated in substandard ways by their physicians, and prescribed powerful narcotics in ways that, judging from the case of one vet who OD’d at the hospital, lacked legitimate medical purpose. And the nickname “Candyland” gives the whole situation a crime-drama feel, to the point where Hollywood could make a successful movie and do a public service by telling the story.
Shift gears to Sony Entertainment, which, you’ll remember, was victim of a major and egregiously harmful hacking attack this past Christmas, apparently in response to Sony’s planned release of the mediocre movie “The Interview.” North Korean agents were determined to be behind the attack, which all but shut the studio down for a few weeks and saw Sony employees’ and executives’ emails and personal information leaked and put on the Internet.
Among the emails leaked was a stream about a pitch to the studio from Adam Sandler for $200 million to make a movie based on the children’s board game, “Candyland.” $200 million! The film studio’s then-president flatly refused to green light the project. I don’t know why she lacked confidence in Sandler’s ability as a filmmaker, seeing how his “Jack and Jill” project won awards for Worst Actor (Sandler), Worst Actress (Sandler), Worst Director (Sandler) and Worst Movie (Sandler’s) of the year, after its release. In any event, don’t expect Sony to make that “Candyland” movie any time soon.
But a “Candyland” drama about the VA – there’s a story worth telling. It has built-in heroes (vets and whistleblowers), antagonists (doctors who might be intimidating the whistleblowers and overprescribing painkillers), and a large bureaucracy of questionable competence (the VA). Good so far. I think the save-the-day characters should be a defense attorney, and a doctor who prescribes within the law.
If the script called for looking at the phenomenon of widespread opioid prescribing as complex and worthy of deep, deliberate consideration, the movie could have a subtlety about it vs being too “on the nose.” Call it wishful thinking, but I don’t think a fictional treatment of this very real problem needs to be overzealous, preachy, oversimplified or excessive. That is to say, it doesn’t have to essentially be a documentary about the mistakes law enforcement often makes in too-aggressively targeting prescribers and in treating patients like drug seekers. Substitute “subtlety” for “time to learn the facts” and you have the right response to this problem, cinematically and in the justice system. Even when the medications are being dispensed from a hospital called “Candyland.”
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