Friday, June 14, 2013

VA Responds to Allegations of Retaliation with Spin, Mistaking Motion for Progress

As the story grows regarding VA retaliation against ill Gulf War veterans and the treatment-focused panel that supports them, the slow wheels at VA have finally moved to generate a response.  However, the response is not directly to the letter from all the ill Gulf War veterans on the panel or the concerns raised.

On Monday, all three of the Gulf War veterans on the Congressionally chartered VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC) sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki calling for a reversal of retaliatory changes that gut the RAC, destroy its Congressionally directed independence, and to implement the many recommendations of the RAC still ignored by VA.  Today's VA response ignores these issues, and instead touts its "accomplishments" for Gulf War veterans.

To date, VA has no proven effective treatments for ill Gulf War veterans.  And, VA eliminated entire paragraphs in the revised RAC charter, including VA's long-ignored obligation to focus on treatments for Gulf War veterans.

The RAC is perhaps best known for a November 2008 report that provided the first federal government recognition that Gulf War Illness is real, physiological not psychological or psychiatric, and likely caused by Gulf War toxins.  

This VA response is unacceptable.  It fails to reverse or even to address the many substantive charter changes that end VA's focus on treatments for ill Gulf War veterans and sweep away the RAC's mission, independence, and reason for existing.

Instead of addressing veterans' concerns, VA instead gives a list of self-congratulating accomplishments, and continues to mistake motion for progress.  

With this spin-filled response, VA fail to recognize that VA still has no proven effective treatments to offer Gulf War Veterans with Gulf War Illness -- and that with Secretary Shinseki's signature on a new charter that must be reversed -- has just removed the goal of finding treatments from the federal panel charged with this task.  

In this response, VA fails yet again to even recognize the unique toxic exposure neurological nature of Gulf War Illness, instead coming up with other names: "Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (GWVI)" and, "Chronic Multisymptom Illness (CMI)".

VA's response is nothing but spin that ignores these serious issues and is utterly unacceptable to the health interests of ill Gulf War veterans. 

And, if VA were serious about Gulf War veterans, they would have dealt directly with the issues raised instead of responding via Press Release.  

Meanwhile, VA staff are fully aware of the far reaching implications of the sweeping changes in the RAC charter, mission, composition, and independence. 

For the last two decades, Gulf War veterans have been battling these VA (and other federal) staff and issues, like Agent Orange exposed veterans who came before and burn pit exposed veterans who came after and who created these "changes" to the RAC, which were conveniently implemented during a leadership change at VA.  

Is the VA Secretary genuinely unable to grasp the implications of these sweeping changes, and the fact that many RAC recommendations remain swept under the rug?



VA RESPONSE:  [my comments are in parentheses following several paragraphs]

"VA recognizes and respects the service and dedication of Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War and remains committed to working with the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses to improve their health and well-being.

 We continue to provide quality health care and benefits to these Veterans and to invest in research to understand and treat Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (GWVI), Chronic Multi-Symptom Illness (CMI) and related health areas.  [VA is still denying that Gulf War Illness is a unique, toxin-induced neurological/neuro-immune condition]

 “In support of care and services to the Veterans of the first Gulf War, VA has led many Federal research efforts to better understand and characterize Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (GWVI) and to improve treatment.

 “VA is clear in its commitment to treating these health issues and does not endorse the notion some have put forward that these physical health symptoms experienced by Gulf War Veterans arise as a result of PTSD or other mental health issues from military service.

 “While VA recognizes the progress that has been made in assisting Gulf War Veterans, we know that much work remains and are committed to continuing to improve the provision of disability benefits, health care benefits, and other benefits and services to these Veterans.”

 Secretary Shinseki formed the VA Gulf War Veterans Illnesses Task Force, previously led by former Chief of Staff and Gulf War Veteran John Gingrich, to better synchronize Department wide efforts to serve Gulf War Veterans.  [The Task Force has been widely criticized, including in Congressional testimony, for being entirely internal with no stakeholders involved, and for inviting but then ignoring veterans' comments to its annual reports.]

 The Interim Chief of Staff, Mr. Jose Riojas, also a Gulf War Veteran continues this work and will address the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses at their upcoming  meeting.  

 Recent changes made to the charter of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RACGWVI) were made in part to bring it more in line with other similar VA charters and to be consistent with the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Contrary to media reports, the VA staff level review of the charter began and was completed in the fall of 2012. No further proposed changes were made to the charter after that time and the new charter signed by the Secretary was not changed since that time in the fall of 2012.  [Removing the treatment focus of the RAC was hardly administrative and had nothing to do with the FACA.  The timing of the charter remains that it was not implemented until May 2013, and at no time was RAC consulted; Congressional offices are calling the changes substantive not administrative and were also caught unawares including the House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman]

 Changes to the charter were not made, as some have asserted, as a response to a March 2013 congressional hearing.  [Disagree.  Actions speak louder than words]

 The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses (RAC) was formed based on statutory direction issued in Public Law 105-368. Six of the current members, including the Chairman, Mr. James Binns, were members appointed under that first charter.

 VA Interim Chief of Staff Riojas met with the Chairman of the RAC in May 2013 and notified Mr. Binns that the Department had made the decision to rotate 6 of the current members and invited Mr. Binns to stay on an additional year to support the rotation of membership.  [The Chief of Staff's letter, which is far from exchanging pleasantries and as I understand it, the letter came first, and the meeting after and only upon request of the RAC Chair.  The many decisions were made by VA without RAC input.]

 The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans Illnesses provides valuable independent advice to the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs regarding Gulf War research studies, plans and strategies aimed at improving our ability to serve these Veterans. [...but many continue to be ignored...]

 RAC input on research studies has led to the addition of numerous research topics to requests for application on specific Gulf War areas of study.  [VA slashed Gulf War funding by two-thirds in its budget document last year, from $15 million to $4.8 million.  Gulf War veterans don't need  unfocused, investigator-initiated broad research "topics", we need a strategically focused comprehensive plan to solve GWI and provide treatments.]

Recent recommendations resulted in additions related to research into biomarkers, imaging diagnostics, and clinical treatment trials.  [Imaging diagnostics was the purchase of a brain scanner used primarily for non-Gulf War purposes and that has yet to produce any meaningful brain results for ill Gulf War veterans.  Clinical treatment trials have yet to be done or announced.]

One such recommendation led to a recently approved proposal to study genomic biomarkers in Gulf War Veterans, another is responsible for a clinical treatment trial set to begin in the coming months.  [The biomarker researcher, based in Minnesota, was denied funding for his follow-on work.  One clinical trial  in the last 10-15 years -- which hasn't happened yet and has yet to be shared with the RAC, Gulf War veterans, or the public -- is hardly progress]

VA has recently released a Gulf War Research Strategic Plan and the Task Force’s Draft annual report which can be found here:  [VA's whitewashing of this consensus-based plan even removed "Gulf War Illness from the title", let alone its focus.  VA now touts it as an achievement rather than noting the unanimous and sharply worded rejection of it by the entire federal panel, the RAC, which is charged with overseeing these research efforts.]    

VA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) have placed extra effort on encouraging Gulf War research resulting in an increase in the number of requested research projects from 13 in 2010 to 32 in 2012. The funding directly obligated for Gulf War research in ORD has increased from $5.6 million in 2011, to $6.7 million in 2012, to an estimated $7.3 million in 2013.  [VA destroyed a promising, Congressionally directed $75 million research project by Dr. Robert Haley at the University of Texas-Southwestern; VA elected to almost no other Gulf War Illness research during the years it was funded before VA killed it; VA has yet to reach the annual $15 million funding level that it once had; VA has been sharply criticized by the RAC and Gulf War veterans for using "Gulf War" funding for non-Gulf War Illness related spending, like millions of dollars for a hi-tech piece of equipment used primarily for non-Gulf War projects.]

VA currently has funded all proposals for GW research that have met scientific and quality merit review standards.  [ Many VA researchers continue to apply for, and receive funding from the DoD Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program rather than VA.  VA has denied funding to even promising VA research projects, including continuation of existing important research. VA continues to fund only VA personnel, not the wide body of medical researchers at the nation's leading research institutions and beyond. ]

In 2010, VA recognized nine new diseases as associated with Gulf War Illness, reflecting a determination of positive association between service in the region and those diseases.  [These 9 diseases are in actuality rare endemic diseases including malaria, Q-Fever and others.  It's clear this spun false assertion -- that they're associated with toxin-induced neurological disease known as Gulf War Illness -- was written by someone lacking in medical knowledge.  Yet, it's indicative of more self-congratulating VA spin.  And, VA under the current Administration has stopped issuing its former quarterly claims data report, so veterans and the public can have no idea how effective VA is with Gulf War veterans' Gulf War Illness claims.]


Recent USA Today Coverage of Gulf War Illness

Advocates say VA gutting Gulf War Illness panel

Researcher says officials covered up vets' health data

Report: New vets showing Gulf War illness symptoms

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