After operating as the only substance use treatment facility exclusively for veterans on the Central Coast since 2019, Legacy Village shut its doors on Oct. 17.
“It’s terrible that we’ve had to close the doors, but the worst part about it is the veterans that are out there still struggling. When they finally say, ‘I want help,’ the window can be hours long, but the wait time for a VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] bed is 60 to 90 days,” said Dennis Farmer, the founder and chief executive officer of Legacy Village. “There are fundamental problems in the VA system for getting these guys help, not the least of them is timely access to care.”
To help improve access to care, then-President Donald Trump signed the Mission Act into law in 2018 to set up a community care network system so veterans didn’t have to travel far to get needed health care. For Central Coast veterans, the closest VA health care clinic is in West Los Angeles.
“The network was designed to fill in the gaps where the VA couldn’t reach people or if the VA had a shortage of specialty services,” Farmer said.
Legacy Village first opened in Kern County in 2015 and served as a drug and alcohol treatment center for the general public. In 2019, the team switched to serving veterans only and moved to its Nipomo location in 2020. As one of the community health care network members for the VA Greater Los Angeles—which encompasses SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Kern counties—Legacy Village relied on referrals to fill its 12 bed capacity. In April 2023, the team began to notice a decline in referrals until they stopped in September, he said.
“We weren’t sure why we were getting this decline, and we were still getting calls up and down the Central Coast,” Farmer said. “We were told that the demand for addiction treatment has gone down, but that doesn’t make sense because it hasn’t gone down anywhere—let alone the veteran population.”
Farmer said that the current VA administration told him that the VA prioritizes care at the West Los Angeles Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation and Treatment Program—also referred as the Domiciliary—and if they aren’t able to give care at that location within 30 days, they will be sent to a community care provider. But none of that aligns with the Mission Act’s purpose to keep veterans in their communities, he added.
Lauren Bolanos, the public affairs specialist for VA Greater Los Angeles, told the Sun via email that timely access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health concerns “remains a top priority for VA.”
“Veterans determined appropriate for residential treatment level of care are referred for admission to the … Domiciliary,” she said in her email. “If veterans cannot be accommodated at the Domiciliary within 30 days, they are referred to community care, where VA clinical recommendations in addition to veteran preference are considered when selecting a Community Care Network facility.”
Farmer said that including the referral and additional screening that requires veterans to travel to LA extends wait times to six or eight weeks, and people typically don’t have that long to wait for treatment.
“When you leave these guys out there for weeks and months, the risk of overdose, family problems, death, and suicide increases,” Farmer said. “This diagnosis is just as urgent as a broken arm, but we don’t treat it that way.”
Reopening Legacy Village will not require legislative change but simply a procedural change in the VA system, he said.
Recently, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) wrote a letter and spoke with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the closure and the potential impact this could have on local residents. Farmer said that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Legacy Village could reopen with the help of local representatives.
“It needs to have teeth. There needs to be continued pressure on the VA that [Carbajal] is serious about this,” he said. “Seeing others get on board with supporting this would be important. … I’m personally not stopping my efforts to get the word out and keep the pressure on.”