(The Center Square) – Help for military veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries is on the way courtesy of a $500,000 appropriation in the state budget.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, known as HBOT, has significantly reduced suicidal ideations and an array of other symptoms in about 60 North Carolina military veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI over the last two years through a program called HBOT for Vets.
The program utilizes hypobaric chambers at Durham’s Extivita clinic to treat veterans with 100% oxygen under two atmospheres of pressure. The program launched in 2019 with the help of then-state state Rep. Greg Murphy, a physician who now represents the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
The program received $150,000 from state lawmakers in 2021, and another $100,000 in 2022. A 2023 request for $1 million for the next two years resulted in a $500,000 appropriation in the state budget approved last week for fiscal year 2023-24.
Jim Hooker, who helps coordinate the program, told The Center Square HBOT for Vets plans to double the $1 million ask with private donations to treat as many as 2,000 veterans in the next two years, and the initial $500,000 proves the General Assembly is committed to helping toward that goal.
“We’ve opened up a dialogue with a number of veterans organizations that would be sending veterans,” he said, with a focus on Marines, Army and Special Forces veterans most impacted by brain injuries. “We have had some response from some, but we would anticipate … we’d get a lot more” now that funding is secured.
Hooker noted the appropriation is for fiscal year 2023-24 only. HBOT for Vets is now working to secure the remaining $500,000 through supplemental funding next year, he said.
The HBOT treatment involves approximately 40 sessions in the hypobaric chamber, at a discounted cost of about $4,000. In recent years, it’s produced remarkable results for 32 North Carolina veterans detailed in data collection efforts and dozens more that were not. In a broader study, HBOT produced “one of the greatest reductions in PTSD symptoms in a four-week period with any reported treatment.”
In addition to veterans organizations, HBOT for Vets is also reaching out through lawmakers in the General Assembly to solicit nominations of veterans from across the state who could benefit from the treatment, Hooker said.
“We’re looking for an exponential increase in the number we’re treating,” he said.
In the meantime, the Extivita clinic is working to develop an eight-seat hypobaric chamber, with pressure testing and FDA approval ongoing, that could be replicated for use in other locations across the state.
While funding more chambers “is not part of the budget right now,” Hooker said, “it could become part of any donated funds.”
North Carolina is home to roughly 800,000 active duty or veteran families, including about 650,000 veterans. Roughly a quarter of veterans nationwide suffer from PTSD or TBI, Hooker said, suggesting more than 162,000 North Carolina veterans may benefit from HBOT.
In addition to the efforts in North Carolina, Murphy has also introduced legislation in Congress to establish a pilot program at the Department of Veterans Affairs to make HBOT available to veterans with PTSD and TBI. North Carolina Democratic Rep. Don Davis is co-sponsoring the bill, along with others from Washington and Virginia.