Wednesday, May 28, 2014

House Unanimously Passes Gulf War Research Reform Act, H.R. 4261

( - May 28, 2014) - In a unanimous vote this evening, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act of 2014, H.R. 4261, along with a myriad of other veteran-related bills, including others related to improving VA accountability.  

The legislation was introduced in March of this year with solid bipartisan support.  Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.-6), Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.-1), and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine-2) were the original co-authors following months of behind the scenes work with Gulf War veterans' advocates. 

The bill would restore independent evaluation of the effectiveness of federal Gulf War illness research efforts and would require the VA to use the term "Gulf War Illness", as called for by an Institute of Medicine panel earlier this year, to describe the condition that, according an earlier Institute of Medicine panel, affects more than one-third of the veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.

According to a USA Today summary, the bill also, "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 [Veterans' Affairs] committee's [leadership], 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.'"

"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 bill author Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. in a USA Today article about the bill.  Coffman served with the U.S. Marine Corps, including in the 1991 Gulf War.

In comments on the House floor tonight, Rep. Coffman addressed the concerns of some that the RAC should include only "ill" Gulf War veteranssaying the RAC has also been "well served" by members who have been representatives of veterans service organizations.  

AMVETS, one of the nation's largest veterans service organizations, provided the following explanation of the need for the bill during testimony by AMVETS National Legislative Director Diane Zumatto during a March 25, 2014 Congressional hearing on the bill:

"If we ever expect to understand GWI, if we ever expect to develop medically appropriate treatments for it, and if we ever hope to truly improve the quality of life of our Gulf War veterans, then continued research, as well as adequate, on-going funding, is absolutely vital.  Our veterans didn’t give up while they served overseas; they risked their lives and their health for the good of all American citizens.  It’s time for this country to hold up its end of the bargain by doing everything possible to take care of the healthcare needs of our Gulf War veterans,"said Zumatto on behalf of AMVETS in prepared testimony.  

Need for the bill

RAC Chairman Jim Binns provided the following background during his testimony in support of the bill:

"The Research Advisory Committee has been charged since its inception with the responsibility to assess the effectiveness of government research, and we complemented early progress under Secretary [Eric] Shinseki.  But when the tide turned and staff launched its campaign to revive 1990’s fictions, the Committee reported it in detail to the Secretary in June 2012 and in testimony to this subcommittee in March 2013.  We asked the Secretary to investigate these actions and to remove those responsible from positions of authority over Gulf War research. 
Instead, VA removed us.   In May 2013, I was notified that the committee’s charter had been changed to eliminate its charge to assess the effectiveness of government research and that the membership of the committee would be entirely replaced over the next year.  
New blood is certainly desirable, but two of the three scientists subsequently proposed for membership by VA were stress advocates.  One has edited a textbook on stress and is a member of the American Psychosomatic Society.  The other published an editorial last year which stated that “presupposing a primary, supplementary, or synergistic role for stress in the Gulf War syndrome . . . provides a framework for valid scientific analysis.”  It is apparent that VA intends to use the Research Advisory Committee itself in its campaign to resurrect these discredited themes."

Coffman said in a statement at the time of his introduction of the bill that the House Veteran's Affairs Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigation had found that the "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."

About the bill

AMVETS provided a summary of some of the bill's most important provisions as part of the organization's March 25, 2014 testimony:

"AMVETS supports HR 4261, the Gulf War Health Research Reform Act of 2014, which would: 
  • establish the RAC as an independent committee within the VA with its own budget;
  • require the that the majority of the RACs members be appointed by the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees;
  • strengthen the RACs ability to review research and studies as well as publish reports related to Gulf War Illness (GWI);
  • expresses the sense of Congress that VA should contract with the Institute of Medicine to conduct several Gulf War studies and reports previously ordered by Congress, which were not conducted or weren’t conducted in accordance with Congress’ direction;
  • require the VA to ensure that research conducted on this disease be referred to as “Gulf War Illness”;
  • with regard to future research, require that Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports on the health effects of veteran toxic exposures, consider animal as well as human studies, as Congress has previously ordered, to better understand the causes and how best to treat our afflicted veterans."

About the RAC

USA Today noted the genesis of the RAC, "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.

AMVETS further attested to the contributions of the RAC since it was launched in 2002:
"AMVETS fully supports the concept, purpose and work of the RAC.  We believe that their work over the years has been instrumental in helping to:
  • shed light on the underlying causes of GWI;
  • examine treatment options for those currently afflicted;
  • ensure that adequate research funding is requested;
  • act as a catalyst, bringing together VA and non-Va researchers;
  • consider countermeasures for long-term, low-dose exposures to protect current and future servicemebers; and
  • identify additional focus areas for future research. 
I would suggest that it is common knowledge that bureaucracies, and VA is among the largest, are not well known for their transparency, creativity or ability to ‘think outside the box’; therefore, it makes good sense to have an independent, non-partisan and transparent body, with its own support staff, nothing to lose and no hidden agendas, composed of medical professionals, research experts, veterans and other stakeholders, so prominently involved in this important work.
Additionally, by openly allowing academic subject matter experts and medical professionals to participate in RAC activities, the best and brightest are able to contribute and act as force multipliers towards resolving the problem of GWI," concluded Zumatto on behalf of AMVETS in the prepared testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

-Anthony Hardie,   

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