Military veterans across the country are scrambling after more than a dozen clinics that had been providing them with free ketamine treatments for severe depression, chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder suddenly closed.
Patients and employees of the Ketamine Wellness Centers, or KWC, said they were blindsided when the company, one of the nation’s largest operators of ketamine clinics, announced on its website on March 10 that it had shuttered all 13 of its locations in nine states.
"I cried for days," said Travis Zubick, a U.S. Navy veteran, who was a patient at the company’s Minnesota location. "They packed up and left town, and that’s over."
Zubick and about 50 other former service members had been relying on KWC's partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for free ketamine treatments.
Now, many are rushing to find another facility that takes their VA insurance before the effects of their last treatment wear off.
“Without the treatment, you’re in your own psychological jail,” Zubick said. “And with it, you have freedom, so it means everything.”
Several studies have shown that ketamine, most commonly used as a surgical anesthetic, can rapidly and significantly reduce depression among people who have not seen improvements from other types of treatments.
Without the treatment, you’re in your own psychological jail.
U.S. Navy veteran Travis Zubick
For those cases, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 approved a nasal spray version of the drug, which is taken with an oral antidepressant. But in 2022, the agency said ketamine is not FDA-approved for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder and warned health care professionals of potential risks.
Zubick, 42, said years of counseling and medications did not help him feel better, but his first intravenous dose of ketamine drastically reduced his physical pain and mental anguish.
"It gave me hope for a different kind of future," said Zubick, who said the KWC closures have exacerbated the depression and chronic pain he has experienced since surviving an on-duty jet crash in 2007.
In a statement, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said the agency does not expect the closures to affect its ability to provide care to veterans and that the VA is "actively working to ensure veterans affected by the closure receive the care they need."
The VA said it “certainly has other providers” who offer ketamine services within its network of more than 1 million. In an earlier statement, the agency incorrectly said more than 1 million providers offer ketamine treatments. The VA on Friday did not say how many providers in its network offer ketamine services or how many of them offer the IV treatments that Zubick and others were getting at the KWC.
A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2021 found that the IV form appeared to be more effective at treating depression than the nasal spray, while previous studies indicated that the IV form has greater potency and longer-lasting antidepressant effects.
Zubick said he has struggled to find a facility in his network where he could get IV treatments. The VA, he said, contacted him about trying the nasal spray, but Zubick said there's a wait time of four to 16 weeks.
In the meantime, he paid $250 out-of-pocket — a 50% discounted rate — Thursday for a one-time IV infusion at another clinic that doesn’t take his insurance.
“I feel totally abandoned,” Zubick said. “There are people worse off than me and somebody somewhere is not going to make it through.”
Rapid expansion, then a 'disaster'
A group of patients and employees are considering filing a class-action lawsuit that would allege KWC medically abandoned its patients by not giving them enough notice to find another provider or time to obtain their medical records.
“What they did was unethical and illegal,” said Sharna Horn, 39, a former patient who is organizing the legal action.
On March 10, Arizona-based employees in the corporate office were called into a room, where management said the company was out of money and terminating operations, according to Jess Aumick, a digital marketing manager who was in the meeting.
“It caught us off guard,” she said.
Aumick, 23, said the rest of the company learned about the closures either through KWC's website or a mass email. Many patients, she said, found out when they arrived for appointments.
"It was really mishandled," Aumick said, adding that she and other employees have not gotten their final paychecks. "It was a disaster."
The company's financial struggles were noticeable for at least a week prior when management closed four clinics, Aumick said.
In a memo obtained by NBC News, CEO Kevin Nicholson told patients and staff that the closures were due to a business acquisition that went south and funding that "never materialized."
In November 2021, Delic Holdings Corp. acquired KWC with plans to expand rapidly, according to a company news release at the time.
The most recent KWC clinics opened in Utah and Nevada in early 2022. But later that year, "KWC became the funding arm of Delic instead of the recipient," Nicholson wrote in the memo. "So now, unable to pay staff, I am forced to close all operations."
While Nicholson served as CEO of KWC, he was also Delic’s COO before becoming its CEO and joining its board of directors in 2022, another company news release said.
Nicholson, KWC and Delic did not return requests for comment.
It's unclear how many patients KWC was treating at the time of its closure. In its news releases, the company said it has served nearly 100,000 patients since 2011.
The VA said it paid claims for about 50 veterans who received treatment at Ketamine Wellness Centers since 2022.
Horn, a U.S. Army veteran who is not insured by the VA, started her ketamine treatments in 2018 when she was having suicidal ideations.
She had tried more than 30 medications before she was introduced to ketamine and felt she had found a "miracle drug."
"That was the beginning of my life, I felt," Horn said, adding that many patients have made similar remarks. "It was taken away right underneath us."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.