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Veterans’ Access To Mental Health Care Cut

 November 18, 2020 at 5:18 AM PST

San Diego County health officials reported 718 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional fatalities on Tuesday.It was the seventh consecutive day that more than 600 new coronavirus cases have been reported by the county. The last four days have marked the highest daily case counts since the pandemic began. County Supervisors voted 3-1 Tuesday to put an additional $2 million dollars into a financial relief program for those affected by the pandemic. On Aug. 25, the board approved a $6.5 billion dollar operating budget for the 2020 to 2021 fiscal year. It included 2 million dollars for those who tested positive for the coronavirus, allowing them to stay home. Each recipient would receive a one-time amount of $1,000, according to a county staff report. The amount approved Tuesday adds another $2 million dollars to the program With COVID cases skyrocketing in San Diego County, officials moved on Monday to punish violators of health regulations, including 17 restaurants, bars, gyms, yoga studios and a church. El Cajon city officials say they will NOT be enforcing the regulations. , The city manager says officers have their hands full without chasing down COVID-19 violations. "We've found that more educative approach has been far more effective than coming in, threatening to shut people down or threatening to fine somebody a thousand dollars." Though the Sheriff's Department and various police agencies have issued hundreds of citations in San Diego, the City Attorney's office says they haven't prosecuted anyone for violating health regulations. Meanwhile, hospitals are preparing for a surge in patients following the spike in cases. Dr. Christopher Longhurst is with UC San Diego Health. He says although there's plenty of capacity to care for patients, the upcoming Holidays raise concerns. "We're very worried about the Holidays, it could become a perfect storm that puts us in a COVID hell." If San Diego hospitals are to reach capacity, a federal field hospital with 200 beds was set up at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido back in April. So far that’s gone unused. It’s Wednesday, November 18 th. This is San Diego News Matters from KPBS News. I’m Anica Colbert. Stay with me for more of the local news you need to start your day. The San Diego VA is making access to mental health care harder for local veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists say the agency's actions are dangerous and irresponsible. Investigative reporter Brad Racino with KPBS partner inewsource has the details. BELDING HUMMING RACINO: Wendy Belding is a San Diego therapist who specializes in helping PTSD and sexual abuse survivors. She treats about 20 San Diego area veterans. BELDING HUMMING RACINO: That's because the San Diego VA doesn't have the resources to treat all the vets it cares for. The arrangement has been around for years, and Belding is one of many providers in the county. BELDING HUMMING RACINO: But recently, the La Jolla therapist has had a hard time getting the VA to continue authorizing mental health treatments for her patients. Belding has heard the agency's on hold music so often she can hum it from memory. BELDING HUMMING fades [Notes:45] BELDING: "Now it's like a 45-minute wait on hold saying how much they care about veterans and how much you know their concern is about veteran suicide, and you're waiting, and waiting." [Notes::12] RACINO: Five clinicians told inewsource that without much warning or explanation, the VA has started making it more difficult for veterans to get the OK to go outside the system for mental health care. And with the coronavirus pandemic growing worse, Belding says now is not the time for the system to falter. [Notes:19] BELDING: "I'm concerned that this is like the perfect storm." [Notes::04] RACINO: Suicide rates among military personnel reached an all-time high last year. But recent reports suggest COVID-19 may be making things worse: Army officials reported a 30% increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers during the first six months of the pandemic. BELDING: "It's frankly frightening what's going to happen to veterans." [Notes::04] RACINO: Those interviewed for this story told inewsource at least three veterans have taken their lives over the VA's actions. One was a patient of San Diego psychotherapist Devin Price. [Notes:14] PRICE: "She was told, 'No, you can't have any more sessions' …" [Notes::03] RACINO: Price says the VA denied the woman further treatments in December. In April, the veteran took her life. PRICE: "I sent in a report, the after action report, and no one contacted me. Nothing. So she's just gone. She doesn't live anymore. They never checked in with me about anything. Nobody." [Notes:0:12] RACINO: In some cases, treatments stopped before eventually getting VA approval. In others, veterans and therapists said they've been waiting weeks or months for authorizations. Several therapists are continuing to treat patients with no guarantee of payment by the VA because they can't bring themselves to stop helping the vets. Belding is one of them. [Notes:20] BELDING: "If one of my clients commits suicide and I made the choice to not take care of them, I'm not willing to live with that." [Notes::12] RACINO: We sent the San Diego VA a list of questions about the mental health care cuts. A spokesperson wouldn't answer any of them. Instead, he asked for the names of the veterans and therapists interviewed for this investigation. [Notes:15] RACINO: One of those vets is April Koeberle. RACINO: She's a 37-year old Navy veteran with a history of PTSD, depression and sexual trauma. She says it's always been tough getting good mental health care from the VA, but recently it's gotten worse. [Notes:15] KOEBERLE: "It's such a looming institution. So much red tape and different things that you don't understand." [Notes:0:09] RACINO: After years of being bounced from one psychiatrist to another within the VA system, Koeberle says she finally found stability with an outside provider. But now she's been waiting weeks to hear from the VA whether she'll be able to continue those sessions. [Notes:17] KOEBERLE: "I think it gives you kind of like this hopeless feeling. I keep having to push to get what they promised. And it's exhausting …. It's ...I know why a lot of people give up." [Notes:16] RACINO: For KPBS, I'm inewsource investigative reporter Brad Racino. That was reporting from Inewsource Investigative reporter Brad Racino. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. inewsource is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS. Meanwhile, the San Diego VA facility could become the first to be named after a woman. KPBS Military Reporter Steve Walsh says this comes at a time when the VA is trying to welcome female vets. San Diego Congressman Mike Levin plans to sponsor a bill to rename the San Diego VA after a female veteran. It would be a first. Karin Brennan was an army intelligence officer during the Cold War. She chairs a new group, created by Levin to recommend the name. "Every veteran has a story. Men and women are no different in that respect. The only difference is our stories are not told as often." The group is supposed to give the Congressman a list of three recommendations by Memorial Day. The VA hospital at LaJolla or the VA clinic in Oceanside are two candidates. Neither are named for a person now. It would still take an act of congress. San Diego is in a foot race to be the first with a group attempting to rename the Manhattan VA after a women veteran. Steve Walsh KPBS News. A local private school was requiring all teachers to return to in-person teaching by the end of this month --...even if they have family members who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Now, after the threat of a student boycott, the school changed course. KPBS Education Reporter Joe Hong explains. After a week of outrage from students, parents and alumni, the Francis Parker School in Linda Vista announced teachers would be allowed to work remotely through March. At first, the school said only teachers with personal medical exemptions could work remotely. Two teachers with high-risk family members announced they would resign. Amitha Devanaboyina is a junior at Francis Parker. I think after they realized the students weren't gonna stop because we kept going even after the weekend had passed. And because they feared a boycott, I think they finally realized maybe we should just extend this exemption for the next trimester. Head of School Kevin Yaley did not respond to multiple requests for comment. At San Diego Unified, the county's largest public school district, officials say teachers with at-risk family members will receive accommodations. Joe Hong KPBS News. The upcoming winter in California may seem cooler than in recent years. That's because of an incoming La Niña weather pattern. CapRadio's Ezra David Romero reports. If you're like me the idea of a cold winter sounds terrible, But because of moderate La Niña forming over the Pacific Ocean that probably will be the case. As opposed to El Niño's La Niña's typically bring colder and drier weather. In Southern California La Nina's are typically drier, but it's a mixed bag for the Northern part of the state. That's according to Michelle Mead with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. [Notes:MEAD] "I like to say get out your dartboard because it really is storm by storm dependent." But even though it may feel cooler this winter compared to last year UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain says the planet is still warming. [Notes:SWAIN] "It points to this sort of inexorable warming in one direction that even with a really strong La Niña event we're not getting a cold year globally." Still he says if he had to put money on it he would bet on a drier than average winter for California overall. In Sacramento, I'm Ezra David Romero Coming up on the Podcast... Much of San Diego county's Latinos population lives in County District 1.. And now they have a Latina supervisor. NoraVargas "You know, representation matters. And I really do stand on the shoulders of so many community activists. People came before me that really created this opportunity for someone like me." You'll hear from Nora Vagas who will be part of the Democratic majority of the new San Diego board of supervisors. That story is up next. After being represented by the same Republican supervisor for 25 years, residents of San Diego County's District 1 will soon have a new representative. Who’s a Democrat and a Latina. District 1 is in the southwest portion of the county and includes the county's second largest city - Chula Vista. Supervisor-elect Nora Vargas is president of the Southwest College governing board. And she'll be one of the Democrats that now make up the majority of the county board. Nora Vargas spoke with Midday Edition host Mark Sauer. That was Nora Vargas, Supervisor Elect of District 1 speaking with KPBS Midday Edition host Mark Sauer.

The San Diego VA is making access to mental health care harder for local veterans, outraging therapists who say the agency’s actions are dangerous and irresponsible. Meanwhile, San Diego hospitals are bracing for a surge in COVID-19 cases that could exhaust medical staff and resources. Also, Supervisors are taking action, approving more funding for an income replacement program.