WASHINGTON -- Two representatives introduced an act Friday seeking more autonomy for a board that provides oversight on Gulf War illness research after Veterans Affairs limited the board's charge.
"As a Gulf War veteran, I've been extremely disappointed at the actions of VA staff to misdirect Gulf War illnesses research by reviving the scientifically discredited concept that 'the same thing happens after every war,' and to eliminate oversight, just as science is finally making some progress," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. Coffman served with the Marine Corps.
The Gulf War Health Research Reform Act of 2014, co-sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., seeks to make the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses an independent committee within the VA, requires that a majority of the board's members be appointed by the committee's chairman, and returns oversight responsibilities for Gulf War illness research. It also asks that the VA consider animal studies when looking at toxic exposures, "as Congress has previously ordered."
"This includes ensuring the VA conducts objective research on chronic illnesses experienced by Gulf War veterans, in an effort to find treatments that can make a difference in their quality of life," Kirkpatrick said.
The act follows a year of animosity between the VA and the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC), an independent body charged with overseeing the VA's Gulf War illness research. In the past year, the VA has replaced all but one of the board members, ended Jim Binns' tenure as the board's chairman, removed the board's charge to review the effectiveness of the VA, and pushed research that looks at stress as a cause, rather than environmental factors.
Earlier this month, the VA told the board they must have the VA's written approval before releasing any reports. Soon after, they removed the board chairman's research report from a letter he wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"Research on the health of Gulf War Veterans has been and continues to be a priority for VA," VA spokesman Drew Brookie said. "VA appreciates members of the Research Advisory Committee for Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, and the valuable advice they provide on research studies, plans, and strategies aimed at improving our ability to serve Gulf War veterans."
The new legislation states, "Reports, recommendations, publications, and other documents of the committee shall not be subject to review or approval by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs." It also says that the VA does not determine the board chairman's tenure.
Coffman said the House Veteran's Affairs Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigation found that "RAC had been marginalized by VA's efforts to embargo their reports and pack the RAC with members who had a bias toward seeing Gulf War as having a psychosomatic rather than biological basis."
Binns called the move good news.
"Congressman Coffman and Congresswoman Kirkpatrick have given Gulf War veterans and researchers a reason to hope," Binns said.
The advisory committee was formed in 1997 after a congressional report found that the VA's work on "Gulf War issues" was "irreparably flawed." Congress found that the VA had focused most, if not all, of its attention on psychiatric causes of the illness.