INDIANAPOLIS — A program intended to help struggling veterans has failed to fully get off the ground three years later and has fully treated one single veteran, WRTV Investigates has uncovered.
Veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, where patients are put in a chamber with two to three times the normal air pressure.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help patients heal their brains, which is why Indiana veteran Brigadier General James Bauerle pushed to create a program for Indiana veterans back in 2017.
The state legislature appropriated $1 million during the fiscal year 2018-19 biennium for the hyperbaric oxygen therapy program for veterans.
But WRTV Investigates has uncovered only $272,000 of the $1 million has actually been spent.
“That’s a big red flag,” Bauerle said. "The $1 million that we received in 2017 to treat veterans with TBI and PTSD, that $270K has been spent. I can't imagine that. We need an accurate accounting and if that money is being misused … which I strongly believe it has to have been done."
The program’s contractors are Clark Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville, which does the oxygen treatment, and Purdue University which performs MRI scans and studies the participants.
WRTV Investigates checked with Purdue University and a spokesperson told us they spent a chunk of the money to "facilitate development and testing of the advanced MRI sequences to be used in the study, analysis of images and study data, payment for MRI scans of study participants, and reimbursement to participants for travel expenses."
State Denny Zent, R-Angola, said only one veteran has been fully treated through the hyperbaric oxygen therapy program.
"One vet has been helped, half a dozen have signed up, only four wanted to get in and once they did only two wanted to participate and one dropped out,” Zent said.
Zent said many veterans find the program time consuming, plus the hyperbaric oxygen therapy provider is hours away for many Hoosiers.
"I think the bigger part is Clark Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville agreed to help,” Zent said. “That's a long drive for a lot of people. People in Kentucky and Tennessee are probably closer to that than people from Northern Indiana."
The other big factor — COVID-19.
"Many have expressed concern about traveling across the state during COVID-19,” said Tim Doty, a spokesperson for Purdue University. “Additionally, the Purdue MRI Facility was shut down for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has reopened under strict safety protocols to continue the research."
Efforts are underway to save this program.
Rep. Zent has filed House Bill 1104 which would extend the hyperbaric oxygen therapy program for veterans through June 2025. A similar bill, SB 91, was also filed in the Senate and is set to get a hearing on Feb. 2.
"We need to extend it so it doesn't revert to the General Fund, because that to me would be the worst outcome of everything,” Zent said. “If the money went back to the general fund, then I would be on the rooftop screaming."
Purdue University says its researchers are eager to promote the project and enroll more veterans.
WRTV Investigates checked with the Indiana Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the Indiana State Department of Health, the state agencies tasked with implementing the program.
"The IDVA supports both Senate Bill 91 and House Bill 1104 as they extend funds for the HBOT pilot program and change its payment structure in a positive way,” said Sarah Holsapple, spokesperson for IDVA. “Both advancements to the program will make the HBOT treatment more accessible for facilities that administer it and veterans who use it.”
The state also emphasized the impact of COVID-19 on the program.
“Before then, the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) and Indiana Department of Health (IDOH) had been working closely with program partners at Clark Memorial Hospital and Purdue University to ensure the program was successfully implemented,” Holsapple said. “Given the innovative nature of HBOT treatment for traumatic brain injury, the program’s deliberate and careful setup was critical.”
The legislation removes a requirement that the state request proposals for hyperbaric oxygen treatment from certain geographic areas of Indiana, a change expected to reduce the program’s workload.
Rep. Zent hopes to add more treatment centers throughout the state.
Bauerle said he has suggested dozens of medical facilities who would be willing to help provide therapy to veterans.
"It has put some roadblocks up, but you gotta get it done right,” Zent said.
The goal is to get the program fully off the ground and help more Indiana veterans recover from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.
We reached out to Clark Memorial Hospital and we are still waiting on a response to our inquiry.