Friday, July 17, 2009

VA Fails Gulf War Veterans Yet Again

Written by Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer, Army Times publications, Friday Jul 17, 2009 15:09:56 EDT

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - After the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a report Wednesday stating that a university had violated a contract for research on Gulf War Illness — and that VA had wrongfully awarded the contract in the first place — a lawmaker called for canceling it entirely.

“I ask that you look into this matter immediately and implement the Inspector General’s recommendation to terminate the contract for default so VA’s funds can be directed to research projects that will help those veterans affected by Gulf War Illness,” wrote Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki dated Thursday.

The contract confusion has wasted more than two years and millions of dollars that could have been used to help veterans, according to the report.

But Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, asked that a new contract be reinstated so that several years’ worth of research into the connection between sarin, pesticides and anti-nerve agent pills to Gulf War Illness will not be lost.

“We hope VA and Congress and the University of Texas can cooperate to fix the minor contracting issues,” Sullivan said. “We believe independent research must go forward.”

The process for the $15 million undefined service contract went badly from the start, according to the IG report.

VA’s Office of Contract Review said the department should offer the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas a grant to do research pertaining to Gulf War veterans. But because VA didn’t want to take extra time to seek grant authority, it assumed — incorrectly, according to the IG — that it had to give the university the right to identify, conduct and manage research projects under the contract to comply with congressional rules for the use of such funds.

“Because VA did not have a defined need, the scope of the contract and the work performed under the task orders issued against the contract was dictated by [the university], including the review and approval of every research project to be conducted,” the IG report said.

In essence, the IG said, “The contract was merely a funding mechanism to support [the university’s] research program.” [Editor's Note: That's exactly right - making it all the more unclear to Gulf War veterans and their advocates why VA is failing to implement the program.]

The IG cited other failures, including the lack of a required pilot study in collaboration with the university, and a change made by the university in the parameters of the study that was at the heart of the contract, which the school did not report to VA. The department did not learn of the change until several months after the fact, the IG said.

According to the report, the university has been in default on the contract since Oct. 2 because it refused to allow VA access to patient data gathered in the study. The IG said VA should terminate the contract.

“Gulf War Illness is a serious disorder affecting many veterans,” Akaka wrote in his letter to Shinseki. “Only through focused, serious research will we be able to truly understand this illness.”

VA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

University officials say they also hope to see the research continued.

“We have been in discussions with [VA] for some time and believe we have reached an agreement how we can move forward,” said John Walls, assistant vice president for public affairs at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “But it would be inappropriate and premature for us to provide any specific detail.”

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