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.

That’s 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. That’s on top of an already high veteran suicide rate compared to the general population.

But our reporting found the pandemic wasn’t 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. 

Here’s a look back at our veteran-focused stories this year and the impact they’ve had:

A photo illustration shows former UCSD Dr. Kevin Murphy (left) and former Navy SEAL John Surmont, who was Murphy’s patient.

REWIRED

inewsource’s 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 Murphy’s 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 Murphy’s 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.

STORIES:

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)

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 Kadima’s clinicians, no transition plan and no discussion with the veterans. 

One expert we interviewed for the story called the agency’s 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 Spravato’s effectiveness and safety following Trump’s remarks about the drug.

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

The series of stories we wrote about this decision prompted San Diego Rep. Scott Peters’ office to start asking questions. Shortly after, the VA’s 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.

STORIES:

Marine veteran Kiaya Bender is shown at his home in Vista on June 25, 2020. Bender is concerned about the effects switching to Spravato from ketamine will have on his mental health. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

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 reporter’s 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 that’s 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 Zoë Meyers to document his journey off ketamine over the course of several months. (We’re 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 they’re not alone in their struggles with mental illness.

STORIES:

April Koeberle, a veteran who uses the VA’s mental health services, is shown at her home in San Diego on Oct. 19, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

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 agency’s 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 they’ve been waiting weeks or months for authorizations. Several therapists said they’re continuing to treat patients with no guarantee of payment by the VA because they can’t 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 don’t 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.”

STORIES:

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.

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Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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...