Testimony: VA Withheld Health Studies Showing Links Between War Exposures, Health Problems
March 13, 2013|By TAMARA LYTLE, Conn. Health I-Team Writer, The Hartford Courant
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suppressed information that showed links between health problems of veterans and the dangers they were exposed to in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War, according to a whistleblower who testified to a House panel Wednesday afternoon.
Steven Coughlin described an "epidemic of serious ethical problems" in the VA Office of Public Health, where he worked for 4 ½ years as a senior epidemiologist until December.
"If the studies produce results that do not support Office of Public Health's unwritten policy, they do not release them," said Coughlin, in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Oversight and Subcommittee.
"This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War. On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible," he said.
Veterans' activists have long complained that VA has been loath to acknowledge connections between veterans' health problems and the situations they faced in theaters of war. Agent Orange during Vietnam and Gulf War illness are two examples. The connection can make a huge difference for veterans in their benefits from the federal government.
In a prepared statement VA said: "The Department of Veterans Affairs has a decades-long history of conducting world-class research studies that meet accepted and rigorous scientific standards. Research on the health of Gulf War veterans has been and continues to be a priority for the VA. The department depends on this research to inform our decisions and guide our efforts in caring for Gulf War veterans. All allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully.
"The VA agrees with Gulf War veterans that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War… In 2010, the Administration recognized nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness, reflecting a determination of a positive association between service in the region and those diseases."
Coughlin was not the only witness venting frustration with the way VA treats health research and treatment.
VA doesn't have effective treatments for Gulf War Illness, said Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran who suffers from chronic health issues.
"…A cabal of federal bureaucrats and contractors work at every step to delay, defer, and deny, and even so far as to obfuscate and refuse to implement laws, policies and expert recommendations," said Hardie, who sits on the Congressionally chartered Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, known as RAC.
Lea Steele, an epidemiologist at Baylor University who studies the health of Gulf War veterans, said VA continues to ignore science and minimize the seriousness of Gulf War illness. A large study this year of Gulf War veterans, for instance, doesn't even ask about symptoms from the illness.
"This is a wasteful and inexcusable missed opportunity at best and something akin to scientific malpractice at worse," Steele said.
Victoria J. Davey, chief officer of public health for the VA Health Administration, said the department was committed to care for all veterans.
"VA intends to continue our ongoing efforts to improve our abilities to provide health care for Gulf War veterans; to bettereducate our health care providers; and to expand the evidence basis for the treatments we provide for Gulf War veterans, and all veterans,'' Davey said.
In his testimony, Coughlin, now an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Emory University, claimed:
• His supervisor told him not to look at data on hospitalizations and doctors' visits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan when studying the relationship of their health problems to exposure to burn pits and other inhalation hazards.
•VA officials at first refused to set up a system to offer intervention for veterans who told surveyors that they had suicidal feelings.
• VA officials arranged for five speakers to brief the medical panel studying Gulf War illnesses with views that Gulf War syndrome is psychiatric "although science long ago discredited that position," Coughlin said.
•When Coughlin tried to make changes recommended by experts to a study of Gulf War veterans, his supervisors killed the idea by falsely claiming it would cost $1 million to do so, he said.
•VA needs a better system for safeguarding study data and making it more widely available to researchers. Onedatabase of Gulf War veterans' family members that was mandated by Congress was lost forever by a computer in Texas, he said.
Connecticut Veterans' Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has long had a conflict of interest in its health studies.
"There is much more effort put into disproving this stuff than dealing with these issues up front," said Schwartz, who studied Agent Orange and has a doctorate in public health from Yale. "It does a disservice to the veterans and our country." VA's research should be done by academic institutions, she said.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).