LAND O’ LAKES, Fla (WFLA) — The founder of a nonprofit that helps families that lose veterans to suicide has witnessed the impact of a depression treatment option, but he is frustrated by a lack of access to the drug.

David Barbush of Once a Soldier said his organization has funded IV ketamine treatment for veterans across the country. He recalled one individual’s reaction after the initial infusion.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Man, everybody should do this,’ Barbush said. “His thoughts of suicide were gone.”

Suicidal military personnel and veterans seem to be stuck in a Catch-22 waiting for potential help from the treatment.

IV ketamine is not available for depression at any Tampa Bay area VA facility, even though it was approved by the for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs four years ago. Only 25% of the nations facilities provide it, including just one of Florida’s seven VA networks.

Navy Veteran Chris Goehner opened Doc’s Ketamine Clinic in Land O’ Lakes after securing a regional contract with the agency to administer the drug, but there is still no agreement in place for VA Community Care to pay civilian providers. 

“It’s kind of disgraceful,” Barbush said. “Because in the meantime people are dying and once we start using ketamine and get them treated for it, they’re non-suicidal.”

Burbush has heard about access issues, including one involving Mark Riehl of Georgia. He paid $4,500 to a civilian facility for IV ketamine and his wife said it worked wonders.

“The ketamine infusions were the best treatment Mark has received since he returned from overseas,” Kelsey Riehl said. “It was like someone gave us back a version of him from 15 years ago.”

But she said what followed was a broken reimbursement promise from Community Care, the arm of the VA created to pay civilian providers for treatment not available at their local facility.

“We have been fighting Community Care and their excuses [and] lies for a year,” Riehl said. “It’s really sad that you have to fight this hard to get a treatment that works.”

(Courtesy AP)

Goehner said before his first ketamine infusion, he tried to kill himself six times, often contemplating ending his life by driving into a wall.

“After my first infusion, I looked at that cement wall and I started laughing,” Goehner said. “Why would I ever think that was a solution?”

While ketamine is also known as the club drug Special K, the IV version involves a different ratio. Goehner said research shows the infusions can help nearly 70% of the depression cases resistant to others drugs. 

Goehner and Barbush hope at some point the VA’s national approval will bring the option to more than just one VA network in Florida, and more than 25 percent of the nation’s facilities.
“The immediate impact if this scales up would be tremendous,” Barbush said. “And I’m looking forward to that day when we can go full throttle on this treatment.”