Saturday, February 6, 2010

VCS’s Common Sense Congressional Advocacy for Gulf War Veterans

Statement About Gulf War Illnesses by Veterans for Common Sense

Paul Sullivan, Executive Director

November 4, 2009

Veterans for Common Sense ( thanks Subcommittee Chairman Mitchell, Ranking Member Roe, and members of the Subcommittee for inviting us to testify about improving government policies involving Gulf War veterans.

Founded by Gulf War veterans in 2002, VCS is a non-profit 501(c)3. VCS and our members provide advocacy and publicity about policies related to veterans’ healthcare, veterans’ disability benefits, national security, and civil liberties.

Nearly 700,000 Gulf War veterans deployed to Southwest Asia in 1990 and 1991. The human and financial costs of our war continue rising. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports 300,000 of us sought medical care and a similar number filed disability claims. VA spends $4.3 billion per year for our medical care and benefits.

VA and VA's Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illness (RAC) agree as many as 210,000 Gulf War veterans suffer from multi-symptom illness. VA’s RAC and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) both agree the exposures and illnesses are real.

According to VA’s Gulf War Veterans Information System (GWVIS), 13,000 veterans filed claims seeking disability compensation and healthcare for one or more Undiagnosed (UDX) condition. According to VA’s Gulf War Review, 3,400 received disability compensation for UDX. Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments.

Veterans for Common Sense is encouraged by VA’s comments during the May 19, 2009, hearing, “… Secretary [Eric Shinseki] has charged us to transform VA’s process for determination of presumptive service connection into one that is based on good science, is substantially faster and makes VA an advocate for our Veterans.” Seeking to build on this forward momentum, VCS provided VA with a six-point plan to address our needs on August 2, 2009. Today, VCS provides the Subcommittee with seven urgently needed changes to policy, research, treatment, and benefits for our Gulf War veterans.

The first government policy that must change is Presidential Review Directive 5, adopted in August 1998, with a goal of “minimizing or preventing of future post-conflict health concerns.” The best policy solution would be for President Barack Obama to order a revision of PRD-5, with input from Gulf War veterans, so the official U.S. policy declares Gulf War illness is serious public health issue and a long-term cost of war.

Second, VA must improve its culture. Last month, panelists on VA’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans wrote, “The VA system itself presents an impediment to care and services.” Improving VA culture starts when VA consolidates Gulf War related activities within VA into a single office so Gulf War illness remains a high-profile and high-priority issue. Similarly, the Department of Defense (DoD) must improve, too.

During a recent military health conference in Kansas City, Kelley Brix, representing DoD’s Health Affairs, dismissed Gulf War illness as stress-related. The best policy would be for DoD to work with Congress and fully fund DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). The CDMRP is a highly effective approach to identifying effective “off the shelf” treatments for our ailing Gulf War veterans.

Third, VA must listen to independent experts and veterans’ advocates. VA must review and respond to the November 2008 report issued by the RAC with an eye toward granting disability benefits for conditions associated with Gulf War deployment and exposure, as allowed by the “Persian Gulf Veterans Act of 1998” (PL 105-277 and PL 105-368). Similarly, VCS supports the recommendations made in September 2009 by VA’s Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans – with the exception that Gulf War veterans’ needs should be addressed separately from veterans of other conflicts.

Congress should restore our access to Priority Group 6 medical care that expired in 2002. Congress should also remove the expiration date for our UDX disability benefits. Since the Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans has expired, Congress should charter a successor committee to provide advocacy on behalf of Gulf War veterans, with authority to review VA’s handling of disability claims, including UDX claims.

Fourth, VA must launch an aggressive outreach effort to educate our veterans and their families about healthcare and benefits. VA should resume publishing the “Gulf War Review” and add Gulf War veterans to the review process. VA should contact all the Gulf War veterans denied benefits under the 1994 UDX benefits law (PL 103-446) who may now be eligible under the expanded 2001 UDX benefits law (PL 107-103).

Fifth, the largest obstacle reported by every panel investigating Gulf War illness remains the lack of objective and consistent data collection and research by VA and DoD. The lack of information about toxic exposures hampers our access to treatment and benefits. In order to obtain more salient exposure and research data, Congress and VA should support research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center by converting the current contract into a grant in order to preserve already completed research. VA and DoD should start more research into the adverse health consequences of toxic exposures, especially depleted uranium.

Sixth, on April 2, 2009, VA published a statement in the Federal Register that VA intends to publish regulations linking nine diseases with deployment to the Gulf War. VCS urges VA to promulgate those regulations as soon as possible.

Seventh, VA should resume publishing and distributing GWVIS reports, as required by a 1992 law (PL 102-585). GWVIS should be expanded to include expenditures for all VA healthcare and benefit programs. VA should report information about the combined degree of disability for service-connected veterans as well as lists of the most frequent medical diagnoses and disabilities, and VA should provide more robust information about UDX claims, such as the grant and denial rate for each condition, including the percentage rating, sorted by each VBA office. GWVIS reports and data sets are essential tools for monitoring the post-war activity of Gulf War veterans.

In conclusion, Veterans for Common Sense commends this Subcommittee for your strong and sustained interest in the needs and concerns of our Gulf War veterans. VCS hopes to continue working with Congress, VA, and DoD to make sure our Gulf War veterans receive access to prompt and high-quality healthcare and disability benefits.

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