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A recap of inewsources 2020 investigations into mental health care problems affecting veterans – CBS News 8

Posted: January 1, 2021 at 4:50 am


Army officials cited a 30% increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers during the first six months of the pandemic.

SAN DIEGO In a year like no other, inewsource kept a spotlight on local veterans and the issues they face seeking quality mental health care in San Diego County.

Thats because COVID-19 took a bad situation and made it worse: Army officials cited a 30% increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers during the first six months of the pandemic. Thats on top of an already high veteran suicide rate compared to the general population.

But our reporting found the pandemic wasnt the only obstacle facing local vets this year. The San Diego VA, which provides healthcare to 86,000 veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties, made several decisions in 2020 regarding mental health care that prompted outcries from doctors, therapists and the vets themselves.

Heres a look back at our veteran-focused stories this year and the impact theyve had:

REWIRED

inewsources most ambitious and in-depth investigation centered around John Surmont, a former Navy SEAL who had a psychotic break after undergoing more than 200 experimental brain treatments supervised by a former UC San Diego doctor, Kevin Murphy.

The series dug into Murphys actions and its repercussions, and made public an ongoing UCSD investigation into how a $10 million gift to study the brain treatment was wasted. After publication, UCSD decided not to renew Murphys contract and then sued the doctor for fraud, concealment and misappropriation of the $10 million gift. Murphy countersued. The battle is now playing out in San Diego Superior Court.

A UCSD spokesperson told inewsource the university will establish more sharply defined guard rails to help prevent future inappropriate activities.

Surmont, who inewsource reporters spent dozens of hours interviewing over several months, said he finally felt vindicated after the story was published. inewsource is currently at work on a documentary about Surmont and his journey through psychosis and back.

AN UNCONSCIONABLE DECISION

In October 2019, a Navy and Marine veteran took her life after learning that the San Diego VA was going to stop covering the cost of her treatments for depression.

The veteran Jodi Maroney was one of dozens of local vets receiving ketamine treatments at the Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute in La Jolla. The drug has recently shown promise in derailing suicidal thoughts among patients resistant to other treatments. As a result, the VA began sending its highest risk vets to Kadima in 2017 and footing the bill. Medical records show ketamine was working for these veterans, all of whom had tried and failed numerous alternatives.

Then, without notice, the San Diego VA stopped authorizing ketamine treatments at Kadima and told the clinic to stop treating veterans. There was no consultation with Kadimas clinicians, no transition plan and no discussion with the veterans.

One expert we interviewed for the story called the agencys decision unconscionable.

Our reporting found the VA was switching the veterans to a nasal spray called Spravato, a ketamine derivative hyped by President Donald Trump as incredible in battling depression. But researchers, medical experts and VA doctors questioned Spravatos effectiveness and safety following Trumps remarks about the drug.

Panic set in among the vets, and Kadima struggled to find ways to continue treating those patients without the VAs authorization.

The series of stories we wrote about this decision prompted San Diego Rep. Scott Peters office to start asking questions. Shortly after, the VAs Office of the Inspector General began an investigation.

Our reporting also found the San Diego VA repeatedly lied about its reasons for taking vets off ketamine, though the agency would not explain why nor would it reconcile discrepancies we uncovered in its statements.

VETERANS VOICES

As part of our ketamine series, we wanted to give veterans a chance to tell their stories in their own words not through a reporters interpretation. We wanted them to explain to the public what it was like to live with an often debilitating mental illness while hitting roadblock after roadblock with the VA, an agency thats meant to care for them.

The series, called Veterans Voices, features stories from local Army, Navy and Marine veterans who were taken off ketamine and put on Spravato.

One veteran, Kiaya Bender, allowed inewsource photo and video journalist Zo Meyers to document his journey off ketamine over the course of several months. (Were still following his progress today.) Veteran AJ Williams recounted her sexual assault while in the Army, saying it kick-started what would become the whole premise of my downward spiral into major depressive disorder, bipolar depression, anxiety and the rest of this story about the VA.

Veterans and their therapists have told inewsource the series has been extremely helpful in informing the public and letting other veterans know that theyre not alone in their struggles with mental illness.

HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

In what sounds like a rehash of the ketamine debacle, we reported last month that amid a worsening pandemic, the San Diego VA is making access to mental health care harder for local veterans. Therapists we interviewed called the agencys actions dangerous and irresponsible.

In short, we found that the VA recently began making it more difficult for veterans to get authorization to go outside the system for mental health care.

In some cases, mental health treatments stopped before eventually getting approval. Other veterans and therapists told inewsource theyve been waiting weeks or months for authorizations. Several therapists said theyre continuing to treat patients with no guarantee of payment by the VA because they cant bring themselves to stop helping the vets.

Therapists and vets we interviewed said at least three veterans have taken their lives over these developments.

As with our probe into ketamine treatments, the VA would not answer questions about its actions. Despite overwhelming evidence and first-person accounts, a VA spokesperson told us that no veterans are encountering clinically significant delays.

Again, Rep. Peters office has looked into why the VA is taking these steps and how the problem can be fixed, though one therapist told inewsource this week that so far nothing has changed.

I dont understand how this is ethical nor taking care of our veterans, psychotherapist Devin Price told inewsource. People who have served should never have to fight for this.

If you or someone you know has experienced problems accessing mental health care at the San Diego VA, we want to hear from you. Email bradracino@inewsource.org.

Originally posted here:
A recap of inewsources 2020 investigations into mental health care problems affecting veterans - CBS News 8

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