WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs officials purposely manipulate or hide data that would support the claims of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent paying costly benefits, a former VA researcher told a House subcommittee Wednesday.
"If the studies produce results that do not support the office of public health's unwritten policy, they do not release them," said Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in the VA's public health department.
"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," Coughlin said. "On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible."
Coughlin testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that VA routinely minimizes research that would bolster the claims of veterans suffering from the series of symptoms associated with Gulf War illness, as well as health issues linked to exposure to large burn pits and dust in Iraq.
Victoria Davey, chief officer of VA's office of public health and environmental hazards, told the committee that veterans receive personalized, proactive care. She did not directly address critics' accusations, and instead talked about the VA's care for veterans and the "cutting-edge" research it has conducted.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and a Marine who served during 1991 war, called VA's handling of Gulf War illness "embarrassing." He asked VA why they changed Congress's charge to ask the IOM to do research on treatments, to which she said VA let the experts decide what should be looked at. He also asked why VA had spent money meant for Gulf War vets on other programs, but Davey said she was not prepared to respond to that question.
"If you had anyone on your panel who was a Gulf war vet, I don't think we'd be here today," Coffman said.
Lea Steele, a researcher at the Veterans Health Research Program at Baylor University, backed Coughlin's claims, saying, "In some sectors within VA, there appears to be backward movement."
Steele also charged that VA has used money meant for Gulf War illness to fund other programs. For example, $1 million went to a Lou Gehrig's disease post-mortem brain bank. The majority of samples are not from Gulf War vets, she said.
VA spent $120 million on Gulf War illness, but just five programs focused on treatments, and two of those were for psychiatric care.
"Studies consistently show Gulf War illness is not due to war trauma," she said. She told the committee that VA has not managed an effective program.
Coughlin's allegations echo previous cases in which the VA was slow to respond to health problems in veterans, ranging from exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, to Gulf War illness, to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2010, Coughlin participated in a study of recent veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that linked exposure to burn pits to greater incidences of asthma or bronchitis. His request to see their medical records was denied, Coughlin said, and the results of the study were never published.
"I was very concerned they were withholding data or misleading people," he told USA TODAY. "I don't want to speculate about why."
Coughlin said a 2012 panel of outside experts hired to help the Institute of Medicine study neurological connections to Gulf War illness was stacked in favor of those who believed the disease is psychological.
"There was no one to present the opposing side — that it's neurological," Coughlin said. "Science is self-correcting, but if people don't publish data that doesn't support an opposing hypothesis, then it's a huge problem."
The IOM research included veterans from the past 20 years, rather than just Gulf War veterans, and "lumped" their symptoms together, according to Steele. Bernard Rosof, head of the IOM committee, said they found no one cause to what they called "chronic multisymptom illness," and that there was no one treatment for all of those veterans.
Steele agreed that VA excluded data from the research, and that it was "akin to medical malpractice."
It's doubly important because today's veterans are coming back with the same symptoms as the Gulf War veterans did, he said.
"Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published," Coughlin said.
Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and appointed member of the Congressionally Directed Gulf War Illness Research Medical Program, said Coughlin's testimony confirms what veterans have been saying for years.
"There are staff within VA who are working against Gulf War veterans," Hardie said. "It puts focus on the specifics and details on the generalities that were already clear."
Hardie said he knows and respects VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, and he feels, based on Coughlin's testimony, that Gingrich was lied to by his staff. Those people should be "punished with criminal sanctions," he said.
"I hope there's a shake-up at VA," said Hardie, who has been completely disabled by Gulf War illness. "I hope the leadership takes this seriously."
Coughlin will also testify that after a study determined that more than 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans said they had considered suicide during the previous two weeks, no VA official had reached out to them.
"Some of them are now deceased or homeless," Coughlin said. "No one reached out to them to see how they could help them."
Coughlin said he complained about the veterans' treatment to his supervisor, who did nothing. He then took the matter to the VA's inspector general, who decided not to pursue the case.
After the 1991 Gulf War, a series of research reports raised concerns that the veterans' children were more likely to be born with defects, and that veterans' spouses were also becoming ill. Congress mandated that the VA maintain a registry of Gulf War veterans' family members. The data has never been released, and Coughlin said he has "been advised that these results have been permanently lost."
He said his supervisors told VA's chief of staff that restructuring a survey for Gulf War veterans so it did not focus on psychosomatic issues would cost more than $1 million and delay the study for a year — neither of which was true.
Coughlin said he was told to retract his claims and admit that he had made a mistake.
He refused, adding that he kept a document trail of e-mails and reports to support his claims. "I thought, 'I don't want to work for these people,' so I left."
Coughlin, who was a senior cancer epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the director of the public health ethics program at Tulane University, said continuing to work for the VA was "against my conscience."