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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Veterans Voices: San Diego County Veterans Share Their Healthcare Struggles

Speaker 1: 00:00 KPBS partner. I new sources launching a series today called veterans voices. It will follow veterans as the San Diego VA removes them from a drug treatment that's been effective in relieving their depression and suicidal thoughts. I knew source investigative reporter, Brad Racino kicks off the series with a local Marines story. And as a warning to our listeners, this story discusses, suicidal thoughts and fears. Speaker 2: 00:28 This is Henry Henry Henry was the beginning of my plan. I'm sorry. Kaia bender is a 29 year old Marine veteran with a history of major depression and suicidal thoughts. And then parsley Bazell mint oregano. He recently gave us a tour of the garden outside his Vista apartment. I have like these crazy like dreams of like what it would look like, like this big old food forest. It was just like a bunch of fruit trees and like, uh, other food plants. Just the assumption that he'll be alive to see that happen is proof to bender that his ketamine drug treatments are working, you know, and those suicidal thoughts are just like kind of gone. Like I don't, it's really like freeing ketamine began in the 1960s as a veterinary anesthetic, but in the early two thousands scientists began to notice its tremendous effect on patients with treatment resistant depression. Speaker 2: 01:24 They also recognized ketamine's ability to rapidly reduce suicidal impulses as it did with bender. You know, and I couldn't have imagined renamable being capable of doing the things that I'm doing now every single day for years, the San Diego VA has referred patients like bender for ketamine treatment at the Kadima neuropsychiatry Institute in LA Jolla to great success. Kadima is run by dr. David Pfeifle a former UC San Diego and VA psychiatrist Pfeifle is an expert in ketamine having administered it for over a decade. But I recognize that this was really something like I've never seen in my years in the field of psychiatry who had trauma had limitations for sure. But it also had, um, had characteristics that, uh, we had not seen in terms of the ability to improve people's, uh, major depression, uh, when nothing else did. And also many times to do it very, very rapidly. Speaker 2: 02:28 Despite San Diego VA psychiatrist lauding Pfeifle success with their vets in may. The agency began telling patients that their time at Kadima would soon end. I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified. The agency plan to bring vets back in house for an alternative drug treatment called provato. I am scared that, you know, they they're what they're doing, won't be enough. And that I'll end up feeling like I did before Academy. And then I had not that's that's terrifying to me cause don't know if I would make it through it again. Now Kadima is vets are pleading with VA leadership not to stop a treatment that for the first time gave them hope. Some are reaching out to politicians, including San Diego, Congressman Scott Peters, whose office is working directly with some of the vets effected. So our job now is to make sure that the mental health professionals at the VA are looking at each case individually and giving each individual what works for them because it works not because it's what's convenient for the VA. There are a few dozen vets caught up in this ongoing situation. That's why I new source created this series veterans voices to let them share their stories. It will provide a firsthand look at how local veterans are grappling with mental illness and fighting for their own health care within the VA system. Speaker 1: 03:48 Joining me is I knew source investigative reporter Brad Racino Brad. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Is this switch from ketamine to the other drug happening in VA treatment all over the country or is it only here? Speaker 2: 04:04 So we still don't know the full scope of what's happening outside of San Diego, but that's not for lack of trying. It's just that the VA's office in DC has refused to answer questions about this. What we've been able to piece together is that last year after president Trump touted bravado as a game changer in combating veteran suicides, a small number of BAS began adopting the drug and San Diego was one of those. Speaker 1: 04:29 Is there just anecdotal evidence that ketamine works in helping depression and suicidal thoughts or has that drug been clinically proven? Speaker 2: 04:39 It has been clinically proven, but it hasn't gone through FDA approval for this specific use. So experts have told me that's because ketamine is old and off patent. And that means any pharmaceutical company that would spend the tens of millions of dollars required to go through FDA approval. Wouldn't then be able to recoup those costs afterward by doing what drug companies normally do, which is patent their drug. Speaker 1: 05:05 Have you gotten any answers about why the VA is ending the ketamine treatment and moving to [inaudible]? Speaker 2: 05:12 So we've heard lots of explanations from the San Diego VA. Um, but none of them make any sense. So bear with me, I'll go through them real quick. So for example, first the VA said it was removing that's from Kadima because the agency could provide the same type of ketamine treatment in house, but that wasn't true. Then they cited patient safety concerns. They said because Kadima was providing a non FDA approved treatment. It's safer to have these bets on [inaudible], which is FDA approved, which makes sense. Except every veteran who has been pulled from Kadima, put on some bravado at the VA and failed, the drug has been put right back on ketamine at the VA, which is not FDA approved. And then one last thing the VA also said they only recently learned Kadima providing ketamine through an injection and not an IB and that that's not standard practice and therefore it's dangerous. Speaker 2: 06:03 However, I have notes from BA psychiatrist showing that they've known that was the case for years and administrators approved it. So it's a confusing mess of lies that we're still trying to sort out, but even the vets, aren't getting a straight answer. Here's Joel Andrews and army that we profiled, who talked about the lack of explanation from VA doctors. It's like another, just let down, you know, you gotta learn that you can't rely on other people. You got to take action yourself or you can't get what you want in this world. And it's frustrating because nobody has a definitive answer as to what the hell's going on with all of this. It's like they're playing some game and they're trying to keep it a secret. Speaker 1: 06:47 Now it seems like the rate of suicide among veterans was very much in the news. Let's say a couple of years ago, how big a problem does depression and suicide remain among veterans? Speaker 2: 06:59 Sadly, it's still a very big problem that has actually only gotten worse over time. In 2017, the suicide rate among veterans was about one and a half times higher than non veterans in the U S and last year, president Trump called on a number of federal agencies, including the VA to develop a strategy for ending veterans suicide that is now called prevents. But it's obviously a complicated thing to tackle because there is no single medical cause for suicide and no single treatment or prevention strategy. Here's Navy vet, Larry McMinn, another local veteran we're profiling, and he's explaining his depression. It's debilitating disease for people. And unfortunately it isn't discussed enough. And every single day suicide crossed my mind multiple times Speaker 1: 07:53 As this switch off ketamine started yet at the San Diego VA. Speaker 2: 07:57 Yes and different veterans are at different stages of that transition. So those I've interviewed who were removed from ketamine and put on, [inaudible] said provato, isn't working for them. They were then put back on ketamine at the BA, but at a much lower dose than they were used to. And they're very unhappy and scared. A lot of them are scared that they'll regress to the place they were before they started ketamine treatments. Speaker 1: 08:22 How much help have vets who want to stay on ketamine treatment, gotten from let's say experts and politicians. Speaker 2: 08:29 So they've gotten some San Diego Congressman Scott Peters. His office is working on this with the VA the house veteran's affairs committee is looking into the situation. And I'm told there may be other investigations just starting up, uh, among one or more federal agencies. Speaker 1: 08:45 And can you give us an idea, Brad, about the other vet voices that we'll be hearing from in this series? Speaker 2: 08:52 So we've got veterans from the army Navy air and Marines lined up who want to share their stories. So these are men and women with very different backgrounds and experiences who are all eager to bring this issue to light and let the public know what's happening here. So they'll all be featured@inewsource.org slash veterans voices. Speaker 1: 09:12 And I've been speaking with our new source, investigative reporter, Brad Racino Brad. Thank you. Thank you. If you, or someone you know, is considering suicide call the national suicide prevention hotline at +1 800-273-8255.

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The San Diego VA has for years referred veterans suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts for ketamine treatment. Despite the treatment's success, the VA is ending the program and switching patients to a different drug treatment.
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