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San Diego officials halt admissions at Veterans Village ‘pending corrective actions’

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Zoe Meyers
The San Diego City and County Administration Building is shown on January 12, 2021.

San Diego County officials have stopped sending clients to Veterans Village of San Diego following multiple deaths at the nonprofit’s rehab center and ongoing concerns about its operations.

County spokesperson Mike Workman said the decision to freeze admissions was made “to ensure the safety, support and clinical wellbeing of those with behavioral health needs.” He said the hold will be in place “pending corrective actions.”

This major development has been months in the making. On Friday, the county provided a lengthy statement that discloses new details about its many efforts to bring the troubled drug treatment program into compliance.

The county oversees the clients enrolled at Veterans Village under the state’s Drug MediCal funding program. Last fiscal year, the nonprofit brought in nearly $6 million through Drug MediCal, accounting for more than a quarter of its total earnings.

Some of those clients are under the supervision of the San Diego County Probation Department and are required to stay sober as a condition of their release from jail.

In late March, the probation department told county officials that Veterans Village was not communicating about their clients, the progress they were making or instances when they left the program prematurely, the county’s statement says.

The department was also growing concerned about a staffing shortage at the rehab center, which was affecting kitchen services, nursing care and clinical treatment.

“These reports were particularly worrisome, as they came in the context of a recent drug overdose-related client fatality,” Workman said.

In late April, 29-year-old Veterans Village resident Brandon Caldera died of a suspected fentanyl overdose, which resulted in an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration that is ongoing.

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Zoe Meyers
The Veterans Village of San Diego campus is shown on June 3, 2022.

According to the county’s statement, the incident prompted more oversight at Veterans Village, including daily site visits, reviews of protocols and attempts to gather information on clients’ experiences.

By early June — around the time inewsource published its investigation into the rehab center — the county issued a Corrective Action Notice to the nonprofit.

Six weeks later, in late July, another death struck the facility. The suspected fentanyl overdose prompted a second DEA investigation and even closer scrutiny by county officials. It marked the fourth death at the nonprofit’s flagship campus on Pacific Highway this year.

By this time, the institution’s Chief Operating Officer had resigned and it was struggling to comply with the county’s Corrective Action Notice, the statement says. Officials visited the rehab center again, on July 28 and 29, and conducted extensive interviews with clients.

Read more about Veterans Village

To read more coverage of the rehab center, go to inewsource.org/veterans-village

“In consideration of the findings from these additional efforts, (San Diego County Behavioral Health Services) is issuing a formal hold on any new admissions to VVSD until further investigations are conducted and further corrective actions are taken,” Workman said.

“We look forward to continuing a partnership with VVSD and remain hopeful that in the future VVSD clients will receive excellent services,” he added.

Residents admitted through the national Veterans Administration, which has its own funding and regulations, are still allowed to enroll at the nonprofit while the county’s investigations are ongoing.

Growing concerns

A nationally celebrated institution, Veterans Village has offered drug treatment, housing, employment and other resources to former service members for four decades.

Dozens of employees and residents who spoke with inewsource earlier this year said they still believe in the nonprofit’s mission, but they have grown deeply troubled by the quality of care it provides.

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Zoe Meyers
Jack Lyons shows old tee-shirts from his years working with Veterans Village of San Diego, May 22, 2022.

The county’s new admissions freeze follows months of Veterans Village leadership publicly denying concerns raised in the reporting, including safety issues, widespread drug use on the campus and a toxic workplace culture. After the project was published, an employee who spoke out about her concerns was immediately fired.

Senior leadership has said that recent challenges at the nonprofit are a result of people with “hostile motives” and ongoing media attention.

In a statement, Veterans Village Chief Executive Officer Akilah Templeton said the nonprofit had already decided to stop accepting clients from the justice system when the county halted enrollment.

“VVSD has paused admissions while we work through a more comprehensive assessment and referral process for probation and parole clients,” Templeton said. “This is not expected to take long, and we agree that it is necessary.”

The CEO did not acknowledge the county’s concerns about the nonprofit’s communication, staffing or safety measures, nor did she mention the Corrective Action Plan the institution is facing.

Instead, Templeton pointed to issues working with the probation department as the reason behind the pause in enrollment. Veterans Village staff have not been able to perform their own assessments of justice system clients because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, leaving them reliant on recommendations from probation personnel on which clients to enroll.

“Like most service-oriented organizations, we remain invested in providing quality care and welcome any opportunity to improve,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, most serious incidents occurring on the campus have involved probation clients so, clearly, we should be looking at contributing factors.”

Asked to comment on the Veterans Village’s claims about the nonprofit initiating the admissions freeze, the county did not provide additional details.

“We stand by the statement we provided,” Workman said.

In late July, Veterans Village held its signature annual event, Stand Down, which connects veterans to social services and has been replicated in hundreds of cities across the U.S. More than 400 former service members and their families received support, Templeton said, and 26 veterans were provided with transitional housing throughout the weekend.

“We would appreciate more balanced reporting to include updates on the great work VVSD is doing in the community,” Templeton added.

Read the full statement from Veterans Village here.

A fentanyl emergency

A report obtained by inewsource reveals details of the most recent fentanyl death on Veterans Village property.

Resident Tyrone Mimms disappeared from the rehab center — a closed campus where passes are required to leave. When he returned, he was put in quarantine housing and not supposed to leave his room, the document shows.

Soon after, Mimms was found unconscious in his bathroom with a white powdery substance that tested positive for fentanyl.

According to the record, Mimms was using substances with his roommate the previous day. A third resident, accused of smuggling the lethal substance onto the campus, was found with drug paraphernalia and discharged from the program.

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Tania Thorne
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KPBS
Pictured are three boxes of Narcan and one nasal spray dose out of the box. Oct. 27, 2021.

“We are deeply saddened by recent tragic events and our thoughts are with families and friends of the deceased,” the county said in its statement. “We also understand that residential substance use treatment agencies face difficult and unprecedented challenges in the era of widespread fentanyl in our communities.”

Opioid overdoses are a growing problem in San Diego and around the nation.

In late June, the county declared fentanyl a public health emergency because of the rising number of deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid substance. Officials are working on a holistic approach to cutting back fentanyl supply, use and overdoses in the region.

“We really need to focus so many more resources in a much more creative way on addressing this issue,” county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said in the June meeting.

“I know this is an issue we have all talked about,” she added, “but if we don’t have the tools at our disposal to really focus, then we are not able to make the difference that I think we all know we need to make.”

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