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Lawmakers want to expand use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for vets with PTSD, brain injury

Army Capt. Kyle Salik is the first patient to receive oxygen therapy at the new Undersea & Hyperbaric Medicine Clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center June 20, 2017.

ROBERT SHIELDS/U.S. ARMY

By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 18, 2019

WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and Senate on Wednesday that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury – an unproven treatment that some veterans have praised as a useful tool in their recovery.

The VA began offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy for veterans with PTSD at a few select VA facilities in 2017. The TBI and PTSD Treatment Act, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., would require the VA to make it available to any veteran with PTSD. The bill also extends the use of the therapy to veterans with traumatic brain injury.

“This bill gives veterans an additional choice to treat these serious mental health issues,” Biggs said in a statement. “[Hyperbaric oxygen therapy] has the potential to help the VA make progress in their mental health and suicide prevention efforts. This is an avenue where we have a lot of ground to gain.”

The treatment uses pressurized hyperbaric chambers to send higher oxygen levels to patients. Former VA Secretary David Shulkin announced in 2017 that the agency would begin offering it to veterans with PTSD, despite a lack of evidence that it’s effective for mental health. The therapy has been federally approved for illnesses such as decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning.

At the time, the VA said it was an “off-label” use of the treatment, but a promising one.

“There is nothing more important to us than caring for our nation’s veterans, and that care must include finding different approaches that work best for them,” Shulkin said.

The VA started using the therapy at facilities in Oklahoma and California to treat veterans with PTSD. The agency recently decided to expand the therapy to a facility in North Dakota, the West Fargo Pioneer reported this month. It’s also now available in Texas and Florida, the report stated.

The therapy is supervised by a VA physician and only available to veterans who haven’t noticed a decrease in PTSD symptoms after going through other, evidence-based treatments.

Cramer said his legislation would build upon what the VA is already doing by making hyperbaric oxygen therapy a covered treatment under federal law.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and my congressional colleagues on getting more access to hyperbaric oxygen therapy for our veterans,” he said in a statement.

The VA said in 2017 that it would conduct new research into the effectiveness of the therapy before deciding whether to make it available to more veterans.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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