Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald "reaffirmed" the agency's commitment to caring for Gulf War veterans on Monday, but rebuffed requests by key congressional leaders to delay the scheduled dismissals of four long-serving members of a Gulf War research committee.
Rotation of committee members brings the VA in compliance with federal guidelines regarding advisory committees, the VA said in press release issued Monday. It also ensures "fresh and varied" perspectives are represented, it said.
James Binns, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, earlier charged that senior VA officials were trying to replace committee members who felt the VA was playing down Gulf War-related illnesses to limit costs and contain the number of veterans seeking medical treatment.
Binns detailed a list of "intolerable actions" in a four-page letter on June 3 to then-acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson; Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; and others.
He wrote that VA officials slanted research studies, failed to publish critical research results and disseminated false information to the medical community and Congress.
Key congressional leaders asked McDonald to consider the matter. Miller and four other House VA Committee members, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., wrote him on Aug. 20 urging him to retain the Gulf War committee members for a year.
McDonald sat in on a regularly scheduled Gulf War committee meeting for 45 minutes meeting Monday in Washington, D.C., and delivered the message to Binns and three others that they would rotate out as previously scheduled.
"He said that was because he favored bringing in new people and hearing all views," said Binns, a Phoenix veteran and medical-technology executive. "The key question now is whom he will appoint. If they are sincere people with the right expertise, having new people will be fine."
The 12-member committee's charter provides that its membership include medical and scientific professionals, as well as Gulf War veterans.
All four of the members who are set to rotate off the committee at the end of the month had served for years. Binns has been on the committee for more 12 years. The others who are leaving:
• Lea Steele, a research professor at the Baylor University Institute of Biomedical Studies from Texas.
• James O'Callaghan, a consultant from West Virginia who specializes in neurotoxicology for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Joel Graves, a Gulf War tank commander turned minister from Washington state.
They either declined comment or could not be reached Monday.
McDonald needs an independent committee to serve as a check on VA staff, Binns said. "With a little more time, I think Secretary McDonald will understand that he needs a committee that is independent of staff to get the full story as Congress intended," he said.
"He has not yet ordered any kind of investigation into what the committee has reported regarding VA's misleading research in recent years," Binns said.
Without naming him, the VA press release appeared to challenge Binns' contention that senior VA officials have backed a position that Gulf War-related illness largely is the result of post-traumatic stress disorder from the four-day ground war in Kuwait and Iraq.
"Multiple reports by our committee and the Institute of Medicine have conclusively established that Gulf War illness is not psychiatric," Binns wrote in the June 3 letter to Sloan and congressional leaders. He also elaborated on that theme in interviews withThe Arizona Republic.
Researchers instead have have concluded that Gulf War-related illness likely was caused by exposures to oil-well fires, anti-nerve-gas pills, pesticides and low-level chemical weapons, Binns has said.
Gulf War veterans who were deployed to the war zone have reported high instances of gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, among other ailments, according to previous VA research.
The VA press release issued Monday stated: "VA is clear in our commitment to treating these health issues and does not support the notion some have put forward that these health symptoms arise as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder ... or other mental-health issues that arose as a result of being deployed."
VA funding for Gulf War research has increased from $5.6 million in 2011 to approximately $8 million in 2014, the release stated.
Binns, a Vietnam veteran and Harvard University law graduate, said he plans to remain active in Gulf War issues, but he was uncertain what role he would play.