TAMPA — A controversial billionaire wants to bring a mental health clinic to Tampa that will treat veterans and their families at little or no cost.
The clinic, part of the Cohen Veterans Network, is funded by hedge fund tycoon Steven A. Cohen. Backed by his $275 million commitment, the idea is to fill gaps in the Department of Veterans Affairs mental and behavioral health care programs, including providing services to veterans with less than honorable discharges who can only obtain VA care under certain circumstances, as well as their family members, who are not covered by the VA.
Tampa would be the 12th such clinic in the non-profit organization.
Expected to open in March in east Hillsborough and treat about 500 patients in its first year, the clinic will initially be funded with about $8 million in seed money. Clinic leaders are expected to raise half of the operating costs by the six-year mark.
The concept has the backing of veterans service organizations like AMVETS and the support of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which entered into a partnership with the network in February.
But the plan also causes trepidation for a former clinic director who questions the network's mission.
Marvin Southard, who was CEO of the network's first clinic set up at the University of Southern California in 2016, said the network was avoiding treatment for the most challenging patients for commercial reasons.
"Both USC and NYU had problems with the Cohen program," Southard said.
"We have a mental health crisis," says Anthony Hassan, the Cohen Veterans Network CEO and president. "We are here to fill in the gaps in care."
Hassan is intimately familiar with both Tampa and the needs of the local veteran community.
A licensed clinical social worker, he is a retired Air Force major who ran the mental health clinic at MacDill Air Force Base from 2001 to 2006. He said offering high-quality mental health care for free or at low cost will result in fewer suicides, healthier families and young people getting help they need early before mental and behavioral health problems become a chronic, life-altering condition.
The clinics provide the same methods of mental health treatment as the VA, he said.
Since opening the first clinic in 2016, the network has treated more than 8,600 patients. Hassan says nearly half are non-veteran family members who are not eligible for VA treatment. That's an important factor for military families who share the burden of service yet have no coverage by VA and limited coverage by the military's Tricare insurance program, which only covers spouses and children of active duty service members or retirees.
In addition, until recently, the VA did not cover veterans who received anything other than an honorable discharge. Now it does, but only if they have served more than 100 days and been in combat, deployed to a combat zone, in areas of hostilities or were a victim of military sexual trauma. The Cohen Veterans Network has no such restrictions, Hassan said.
"With 14 out of the 20 veterans who take their own lives per day not engaging VA care, partnerships such as this help those veterans, as well as their families, receive care where they live," David Shulkin, VA Secretary at the time, said when the partnership with the Cohen network was announced.
Southard, the former USC clinic director, said he thinks "that what is required in a veteran-heavy locality like Tampa is a true convener organization or person who could bring the veterans service community together as collaborators rather than as competitors. I had hoped that the Cohen project could have served that role, but in Los Angeles, at least, they were inclined to do the opposite."
Tracy Neal-Walden, clinic director for the network operation that opened in Silver Springs, Maryland a little more than a year ago, said she has not experienced that problem.
"I continue to be pleased and proud they made this decision and the quality of work my team is doing," said Neal-Walden, who retired last year as an Air Force colonel who ran the flying branch's mental health care programs
The network has also earned the plaudits of people like Joe Chenelly, National Executive Director of AMVETS, who said the network "is on the same page as VA and AMVETS regarding the end goal: delivering timely, quality care to our nation's heroes.''
But the network was the subject of a scathing February story in ProPublica, which raised questions about its intent, including whether it is an effort to privatize VA healthcare. It also delved into how Cohen's hedge fund pleaded guilty to insider trading.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Trinity), vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the network.
Though a sponsor of the Mission Act legislation that opens up opportunities for veterans to receive VA-funded care outside the system, "Bilirakis does not support privatizing or replacing the VA in any way," said Summer Robertson, his spokesperson.
"Any entity serving the veteran community … should be held accountable for meeting the highest standard of care," Robertson told the Times in an email. " If the Cohen Network helps meet an unmet need by providing mental health services in the Tampa area, that could potentially be a good option for some veterans."
Hassan, the network's CEO, dismisses the notion that the clinics are an effort to privatize VA care or that there is a profit motive.
The Tampa office, like all others, will work with the VA and local veteran service organizations to find patients who are falling through the gaps, he said.
The network, he said, provides all costs for clinic buildout and the first three years at full cost. By the sixth year, the clinic will have to raise half its operating costs. This can be accomplished through philanthropy, government grants or insurance reimbursements, including from VA, Tricare, Medicare and private insurers.
To date, the network has not reached out to any local legislators, veterans services organizations or local charitable organizations for help, Hassan said. But the plans are to do so.
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112 . Follow@haltman .