TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved using ketamine for severe cases of depression, but four years later the treatment is still unavailable in about 75% of VA networks, including both in the Tampa Bay area.
Chris Goehner said intravenous infusions of the drug saved his life.
The retired Navy Corpsman, who was deployed twice in Iraq after the war started in 2003, came home with survivors’ guilt over the patients he could not save.
“I still struggle with the fact of why me?” Goehner said. “Why am I still here verses those who I saw die on my O.R. table?”
During the 17 years since his last deployment, Goehner tried to kill himself six times.
“It’s pretty bad when you can’t even succeed at committing suicide. You fail at wanting to end it,” Goehner said. “And then you realize those patients who we tried to save didn’t have a choice and yet I am choosing when I want to die? It made it even worse.”
After his final suicide attempt last December, Goehner decided to try IV ketamine and received a series of infusions at the start of the year.
“Within one infusion, my suicidal thoughts were gone,” Goehner said. “By my second infusion, which was three days later, those suicidal thoughts were gone and I could not wait to get back to work.”
He said his breakthrough motivated him to open a Land O’ Lakes clinic in August after he was awarded the VA southeast regional contract to administer the drug.
While it was was approved by the agency in 2019 for treatment-resistant depression, it is not available through the Bay Pines and James Haley VA networks. Gainesville is the only one of Florida’s seven VA’s currently providing ketamine treatment.
According to the VA, less than 25%—41 of the nation’s 171 VA networks—are offering ketamine to depressed veterans.
Another version of the drug that was injected, snorted and smoked gained notoriety as the party drug known as “special K.”
When a VA network does not offer a type of treatment, the Community Care program is supposed to pay a civilian clinician to provide the care.
Community Care was created after several Phoenix VA patients died in 2014 while they were placed on “secret wait lists.” The goal of the program was to allow veterans to go outside the VA for care if they waited too long, had to drive too far or could not get the treatment at their local facilities.
But according to Goehner, his regional contract is not enough for Community Care to pay the nearly $5,000 cost for IV Ketamine. He said the VA will not cover it without local contracts that have yet to be approved.
Goehner said he believes time is running out for veterans who cannot afford the help without help from the VA.
“I don’t want to think about because it hurts. I have lost more friends to suicide than I ever did in Iraq,” Goehner said. “And I know every single one of my friends that killed themselves would have been saved using IV Ketamine.”
According to public affairs personnel at Bay Pines and James Haley, there are no plans in place to add Ketamine treatment to their respective list of services.
Goehner said veterans can get reimbursed by the VA, if they opt to pay the cost.
“It takes several months to get the money back,” Goehner said. “Some just can’t afford the upfront cost. That’s why I’m pushing for changes. This will save lives.”