COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH)–It a was $6 million program meant to heal the invisible wounds of Ohio’s veterans, and the taxpayer-funded Veterans NOW program was abruptly shut down after a few months, leaving the people who relied on it to wonder what happened.
Veterans NOW (short for Neuromodulation Operation Wellness) was a pilot program designed to treat mental issues veterans face, including post-traumatic stress and substance abuse, without the use of pharmaceuticals.
The program was meant to explore an off-label use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which Thomas Paschal said worked well to treat the depression that followed his wife’s death in 2012.
“(My depression) was to the point where I couldn’t talk about it. Certain songs would play and I would immediately go down the rabbit hole,” Paschal said.
Paschal, who joined the United States Air Force in 1968, began receiving treatments through the program in December at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He described the effects of the TMS as “sneaky good.”
“You don’t even realize it’s working,” Paschal said. “The anniversary of my wife’s death came up, and when people asked me about it, I would talk about it. And I wouldn’t get depressed.”
Paschal praised the work and bedside manner of Dr. Marcia Bockbrader, the TMS and brain injury specialist who led the treatments. He also spoke highly of Ohio Sen. Frank Hoagland, who created the 2019 legislation that funded Veterans NOW.
Hoagland spent 30 years as a Navy SEAL.
“Everything I’ve done with the VA system – it’s kind of a cookie-cutter approach,” Hoagland said. “They check you out, they give you whatever they think they need to give you, and they send you home. It’s not working. It should be obvious. We’ve got 22 veterans a day that kill themselves.”
Hoagland’s staff shared emails to the senator from veterans who participated in the Veterans NOW program.
One veteran wrote that he was able to sleep better after TMS treatments began. “I had been seeming more rested, in an overall better mood, and able to deal with everyday stress in a more levelheaded manner,” the email said.
“I take time off work every day and drive an hour each way to get to these appointments,” another veteran wrote. “My treatment has been helpful and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate.”
That veteran’s email went on to say that when he showed up for an appointment on March 5 and the doors were locked.
Paschal said he got a phone call that same week informing him that the program was paused and he should not show up for his next appointment.
Neither Paschal nor Hoagland understood why the program was paused, and they knew Bockbrader was no longer involved.
An email dated March 4, obtained from OSU Wexner Medical Center through a public record request, revealed the program was paused when Bockbrader was suddenly placed on leave.
“Compliance concerns were addressed immediately and the program resumed after a week-long pause,” said a spokesperson for OSUWMC, who would not elaborate on the nature of the compliance concerns.
The program returned with a different doctor. Paschal said unlike Bockbrader, the new doctor was not present for his subsequent treatments and Paschal’s progress was no longer measured.
“After this change, I’m not going to say that it isn’t working at all, but I feel that it is not working as well,” one veteran wrote to Hoagland.
A consulting business called TEAM Argonaut served as a point of contact for patients in the Veterans NOW program. The veteran-run firm surveyed the patients about their experience with the program. In an email to Hoagland and his staff, TEAM Argonaut reported significant drops in satisfaction among patients after the program resumed from its weeklong pause.
According to TEAM Argonaut’s findings, 95% of those surveyed said they would have recommended the Veterans NOW program to other veterans before the pause. After the changes made in early March, 20% said they would recommend the program and 60% said they would not.
“We have had six no-shows since restarting the program… (more than we had over the entirety of the program to date), one veteran tap out and end up in the hospital, another is also at risk of substance use relapse… and many more have (sic) threaten to drop out as well,” wrote TEAM Argonaut’s Jeff Lindquist in his message to Hoagland.
Paschal then received a letter, dated May 19, informing him that the Veterans NOW program would end on June 15.
The program was funded through June 30.
OSUWMC declined NBC4 Investigates’ request for an interview with Veterans NOW leadership and instead provided a statement:
“The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center plans to end its participation in the Veterans Now pilot program on June 15. We understand that veterans have anecdotally reported satisfaction with the treatment; however, the medical center is reviewing the program for possible non-compliance with established policies and procedures. Patient care is our highest priority and while there is no evidence of harm to patients, we must take appropriate steps to maintain patient safety.
The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center will continue to provide care for veterans and conditions associated with their service.”
Bockbrader remains on leave. She did not respond to an email from NBC4 Investigates seeking comment.
A Hoagland staffer said she did not believe the compliance issues with Veterans NOW were directly related to Bockbrader’s conduct. The staffer believed the issue was related to understaffing or a lack of resources to keep the program in compliance.
Hoagland filed new legislation seeking $12 million for a similar program. It has been approved by the Senate and is pending in the House of Representatives.
“This go-around, we’ve gotten a lot smarter than we did the last time,” Hoagland said. “Our focus has to be helping these veterans.”