AJ Williams, El Cajon, May 27, 2020.
Army veteran AJ Williams of El Cajon becomes emotional as she discusses her switch from receiving ketamine treatments at Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute to receiving Spravato treatments at the San Diego VA, May 27, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Following an inewsource report that the VA San Diego Healthcare System has stopped paying for a drug treatment that helps suicidal veterans, a panel of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has begun investigating the decision.

El Cajon veteran AJ Williams, featured this month in the inewsource investigation, was interviewed Monday by a staff member from the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. A representative from San Diego Congressman Scott Peters’ office also participated.

Williams is one of several veterans pulled from ketamine treatments at a private clinic and ordered back to the VA to be treated with a controversial nasal spray President Donald Trump has touted as “incredible.”

Why this matters

The VA San Diego Healthcare System serves nearly a quarter million veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties. The agency is responsible for ensuring veterans who suffer from PTSD, major depression and suicidal thoughts receive the care they need.

Ketamine is an FDA-approved anesthetic used off label to curb suicidal thoughts in depressed patients resistant to other medications. The San Diego VA has for years authorized and paid for dozens of high-risk veterans to receive the drug at the Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute, a La Jolla clinic operated by Dr. David Feifel, a former UC San Diego psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of ketamine treatment.

Williams isn’t sure what will come of the House inquiry.

“I’m skeptical that it’ll get buried in red tape for a long time before any changes will happen,” Williams told inewsource. But she said she hopes “veterans get our freedom of choice back when it comes to seeing providers outside the VA network.”

In May, the VA stopped authorizing vets for treatment at Feifel’s clinic, despite an outcry from the patients and without consulting their psychiatrists. Top VA administrators in San Diego were warned repeatedly that their actions could have catastrophic consequences. Those warnings were ignored even after a Navy and Marine Corps pilot took her life after learning that the VA was going to stop paying for the drug.

Now the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs wants to know why. Spokesman Miguel Salazar told inewsource the committee has requested more information from the VA and will soon be briefed to determine whether what’s happening in San Diego is “isolated” — or if the halt in ketamine treatments for ailing veterans is occurring across the country.

inewsource asked the San Diego VA on Monday about the House investigation but no comment has been provided despite multiple requests.

Veterans have told inewsource they’ve seen little-to-no success using Spravato, the drug hyped by Trump and pushed by the local VA to replace ketamine. Experts, including the VA’s own doctors, raised concerns about Spravato’s effectiveness and safety following Trump’s remarks last year about the drug.

Rep. Mark Takano, a Riverside Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, demanded last June that the VA provide documents and information about its review and contracting process for Spravato.

Salazar said that investigation is ongoing and was expanded in February along with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform into the financial holdings of Trump associates who lobbied for the drug’s use.

Clarification: 11:30 a.m., June 17, 2020
The story has been updated to show the congressional committee is seeking more information from the Veterans Administration about the changes to ketamine treatments by the San Diego VA.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...