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Friday, February 28, 2014

DAV: Comprehensive Veterans' Bill, S. 1982, Stopped by Procedural Vote

SOURCE: DAV email, 2/28/2014



Veterans' Bill, S. 1982, Stopped by Procedural Vote
More Info
February 28, 2014
 
On February 27, 2014, the Senate declined, by a vote of 56-41, to waive a budget point of order raised against S. 1982, a comprehensive expansion of veterans programs, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sixty votes were needed to waive the budget point of order and continue work toward final passage of the bill. This vote effectively stopped the bill.

The measure would have expanded caregiver benefits to veterans of all generations and improved health and dental care services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It also would have allowed the VA to open 27 new clinics and medical facilities. Enrollment in VA health care would have been opened for more veterans. Educational and employment opportunities would have been expanded and would have improved access to care and benefits for veterans who experienced military sexual trauma. Also full cost-of-living adjustments would have been restored for future military retirees.

S. 1982 also included advance appropriations for VA’s mandatory funding to pay disability compensation, pension, survivor’s benefits and education and vocational rehabilitation benefits. In addition, this measure would have expanded survivors’ benefits and established a task force to examine how VA provides work credits to employees and another task force to examine VA’s benefits training programs.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the discretionary cost of the bill would be about $20 billion through fiscal year 2019. Opponents of S. 1982 expressed disagreement with the chosen route to pay for the discretionary portion of the bill. The point of order against S. 1982 was sustained, due to the bill’s exceeding by $261 million the government-wide spending limits Congress agreed to in the budget act passed in December 2013, in the wake of the government shutdown.

The legislation was supported by DAV, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and virtually every other veterans’ and military service organization.

A scaled-back proposal was offered by Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina included U.S. sanctions against Iran and offset the bill’s costs by preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving child tax credits. In remarks broadcast by C-SPAN, Senator Burr said that the Sanders’ bill “could hurt veterans, not help them,” by overloading VA facilities and services. Others believed the bill was too costly and would overwhelm the VA.

DAV will continue to work with members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committees to move legislation forward on advance appropriations for all VA programs, to expand caregiver benefits to all generations of veterans and work to enact the many other provisions in S. 1982. These measures would benefit wounded, injured, and ill veterans, their families and survivors.

Find out how your Senator voted by clicking here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES: The VA's War -- VA AND Congress Clash Over Suicide Charges




"VA continues to downplay or ignore some of its toughest challenges, treating each one like an impending public relations crisis -- one in which to admit mistakes would be to admit defeat.  

"But this isn’t about PR. It’s about problem solving. Until VA leaders realize this, the department’s most serious problems will persist. In the meantime, America’s more than 20 million veterans continue to wait for solutions.

-Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Chairman, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs

*****


The article below, by award-winning journalist Jamie Reno, is an eye-opening look at how VA remains broken, how VA officials are complicit, and how veterans have been affected.

After reading, please consider contacting your two U.S. Senators and your Representative in Congress, then share the link to this International Business Times story and ask them to take specific action to fix VA and hold VA leaders accountable.

-A.H.

*****

SOURCE:  International Business Times, Jamie Reno reporting
http://www.ibtimes.com/vas-war-department-veterans-affairs-congress-clash-over-suicide-charges-1557910 --  Please click on this link so that your read gets counted!



ARCHIVED TEXT

The VA's War: Department Of Veterans Affairs And Congress Clash Over Suicide Charges

on February 27 2014 2:12 PM

Simmering tensions between members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs boiled over this week following an IBTimes report that the veterans department had substantiated three ethical lapses -- one of which involved veteran suicides -- cited last March by an agency whistleblower.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC), told IBTimes this week that at a January briefing, a VA official told a member of his HVAC staff that the agency did not follow up on some veterans who admitted to having suicidal ideas during a health study on veterans -- and who later committed suicide.
“My staff contends that during a Jan. 3, 2014, verbal briefing, VA officials confirmed that VA personnel did not follow up on some veterans who admitted to suicidal ideation -- and who later committed suicide -- during a study of Gulf War veterans,” Miller said. “If VA contends there was a miscommunication, it was only brought on by VA’s lack of transparency and reluctance to provide the committee with written details of its investigation into Dr. Coughlin’s allegations."
VA has confirmed some of the lapses cited by whistleblower and former VA epidemiologist Dr. Steven Coughlin in testimony before the HVAC's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, but insists the agency does not know if any of the veterans from the study later committed suicide.  
Coughlin claimed that the VA failed to follow up with nearly 2,000 veterans who reported in what was known as the “New Generation” study of veterans by the agency’s Office of Public Health (OPH) that they had suicidal thoughts.

“Some of those veterans are now homeless or deceased,” Coughlin said at the hearing. “I was unsuccessful in getting senior OPH officials to address this problem in the study.”
 
Curt Cashour, a senior HVAC staff member, told IBTimes that at that January briefing, Dr. Robert Jesse, VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for health, told Eric Hannel, the oversight and investigations subcommittee’s staff director, that some veterans who were not followed up on later took their own lives.
Hannel declined a request for an interview for this story. But Rep. Miller stands by Hannel's contention.
Asked about VA’s reported admission at the briefing that some veterans had killed themselves, the agency declined to comment on the record. Instead, its press office provided IBTimes with the results of an unrelated OPH study in which there were no proven suicides.
When asked again this week, a VA spokesperson said that the agency rejected the HVAC's contention. "In these briefings, no VA official nor staff present at the meetings stated that veterans had committed suicide when [study participants] were contacted for follow-up," said the spokesperson.
There are three VA health studies at issue:
  • - The National Health Survey of Gulf War Era Veterans and Their Families (“National Health Survey”) (1995-2001) included 15,000 deployed and 15,000 non-deployed veterans and their families in a study of adverse health outcomes associated with the Persian Gulf War (follow-up study in 2004-2005).
  •  
  • - The Health Surveillance for a New Generation of U.S. Veterans (“New Generations”) (data collected 2009-2011) included 30,000 deployed and 30,000 non-deployed Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans in a study of chronic medical conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other psychological conditions, general health status, reproductive health, pregnancy outcomes, behavioral risk factors, etc. On this study, Coughlin was a co-investigator.
  •  
- The Follow-Up Study of a National Cohort of Gulf War and Gulf Era Veterans (“Gulf War Follow-Up Study”) (data collected 2012-2013) included 15,000 deployed and 15,000 non-deployed veterans in a follow-up of a 1995 National Health Survey to study chronic medical conditions, PTSD, other psychological conditions, general health status, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Chronic Multisymptom Illness (CMI), etc., 20 years post-deployment. On this study, Coughlin was principal investigator (PI).
During the Gulf War Follow-Up Study’s initial pilot study of 167 veterans, six veterans said they had suicidal thoughts; that was on Aug. 1, 2012. But the VA does not know if any of those six have committted suicide since that date, according to a spokesperson.
Dr. Tom Puglisi, executive director of VA’s Office of Research Oversight, which looked into Coughlin’s charges, acknowledged this week that he and Jesse conducted the review of Coughlin’s allegations and briefed HVAC staff about that review in January. But Puglisi would not say whether any veterans in any of the studies on which Coughlin worked who identified themselves as suicidal and were not followed up on immediately by VA later committed suicide.
When asked that question, Puglisi responded by saying that the veterans in these studies “were not in VA facilities when they participated. These studies were paper-and-pencil surveys mailed to veterans who returned the surveys by mail or responded through a computer website. A small percentage were interviewed by telephone.”
But several veterans sources told IBTimes that VA had those veterans’ names and contact information and could have quickly and easily connected them with a mental health professional as soon as they learned from the mailed-in surveys that the veterans had suicidal thoughts.
In the official review of Coughlin’s allegations, VA writes that the “lack of active follow-up for suicidal ideation in the online and paper-and-pencil surveys from the New Generation Study was not considered problematic” by VA’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the time the study was conducted, and that the approximately 2,000 veterans who expressed suicidal ideation “were not at that time considered to be at undue risk.”
Coughlin’s Charge Stands
The VA confirmed that it demonstrated a lack of immediate concern for some veterans who said they had suicidal thoughts. The agency said in its response to Coughlin's charges that “there was a delay in follow-up of suicidal ideation for 167 veterans who completed surveys in the pilot phase of the Gulf War Follow-Up Study.”
The VA says Coughlin’s claim about the nearly 2,000 veterans has not been substantiated and contends there have been no suicides. But the agency’s decision not to comment on the specifics of the New Generation study raises questions: Has VA followed up with all of the nearly 2,000 veterans referenced by Coughlin in the study? And if so, how many are deceased and what were their causes of death?
Miller said VA routinely refuses to engage in constructive and honest conversations when challenged, and routinely ignores media inquiries and congressional requests for information, of which there are more than 100, some dating back more than a year. He noted that while VA completed its investigation of Coughlin’s charges report on July 5, 2013, the department didn’t brief HVAC staff until nearly six months later.
“And even then, department officials only provided a verbal rundown of the report’s findings, would not provide a copy of the actual report, and did not provide any written documentation that would have eliminated confusion as to the contents of the report,” Miller said. “We’re committed to providing the public with timely and accurate information regarding the conduct and performance of the department, but we can only do so if we have VA’s full cooperation. In this case, we didn’t get that.”
Glenn Bergmann, a former VA litigator who is now a partner at Bergmann & Moore, which represents veterans in VA disability claim appeals, said, “I am shocked that VA apparently does not have a process to follow up when our vulnerable veterans are identified as part of a study, especially suicidal veterans or veterans with severe posttraumatic stress disorder.”
VA did say this week that Coughlin’s charges have led to changes in protocol for dealing with suicidal tendencies among veterans in its studies. Puglisi said that among other things, OPH leaders participated in “targeted human resources training in dispute resolution, reasonable accommodations, dealing with employee medical information, and supervisory practices and standards.”
Veterans’ Mental Health is VA’s 'Highest Priority'
Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and longtime veterans advocate who has provided testimony before Congress on veterans’ health, said that as soon as VA learned that veterans were suicidal in these studies, by mail or phone, “they had an absolute obligation to do something about it. And they didn’t.”
Hardie said that when he served in the Gulf War, he did not lose a single person he served with. “Since then, I have lost a number to suicide, and a lot of this has to do with Gulf War illness,” he said, referring to the mysterious and debilitating illness that afflicts 250,000 veterans, according to the Institute of Medicine. “When your health is so bad and quality of life is so poor, you’re so sick and weak and you’re in chronic pain, and you know there is no treatment, contemplating suicide for many veterans is unfortunately a natural next step. I know, because like countless Gulf War veterans, I’ve been there myself. VA has failed in its research on Gulf War illness. There is still no treatment two decades later, and suicide is sadly one of the tragic results of this failure.”
Puglisi insisted that the mental health and wellbeing of veterans is VA’s “highest priority,” and that “even one suicide is one too many. That’s why VA has put into place an intensive, multi-pronged effort to expand its suicide prevention programs and data systems to increase understanding and prevention of suicide among veterans.”
Yet it seems that this "expansion" happened only because of a 2007 lawsuit brought by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), a veteran advocacy organization. Michael Zacchea, a VCS board member who is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, said the suit “addressed VA’s failures to recognize the burgeoning mental health crisis that manifests itself in suicides. I don’t believe VA would have had anything like this if not for the ongoing political and legal pressure put on the department.”
The suit was filed July 23, and one week later the VA linked up with the civilian Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) -- and added a feature for veterans seeking help in which they can press 1 and be directed to a VA hospital.
In 2008, VA put suicide prevention counselors in every facility. That, too, was the result of the VCS lawsuit, said Zacchea, who noted that the suit was very effective in forcing VA to make changes despite the fact that the case ultimately was not heard last year by the Supreme Court.
Zacchea said the lawsuit was filed because VA had failed to implement a mental health strategic plan, and one of requirements in the lawsuit was that there be a mental health suicide expert in each VA facility. "One reason why VA was turning away suicidal veterans was because no one was able handle veterans who came into hospital in a suicidal state," Zacchea said.
While VCS continues to apply pressure, so does Miller. Last July, the lawmaker, whose committee is one of the few effective bipartisan committees in Congress, launched a Trials in Transparency Web page with HVAC ranking member Mike Michaud, the Democratic congressman from Maine. The site highlights the instances in which VA has not provided Congress with requested information.
“VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department’s stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country,” Miller said. He suggested that what VA leadership fails to understand is that to overcome VA’s challenges, it must acknowledge them to Congress and the public -- two groups that Miller said are actively pulling for VA to succeed.
“But rather than working with its supporters to solve its problems and better serve America’s veterans, VA continues to downplay or ignore some of its toughest challenges, treating each one like an impending public relations crisis -- one in which to admit mistakes would be to admit defeat,” he said. “But this isn’t about PR. It’s about problem solving. Until VA leaders realize this, the department’s most serious problems will persist. In the meantime, America’s more than 20 million veterans continue to wait for solutions.”
***




VA Releasing 3rd Gulf War Task Force Report for Public Comment



The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is releasing its third Gulf War Task Force report for public comment tomorrow.


Below is VA's prepared "Fact Sheet" about the Task Force.


To date, VA has failed to adopt almost every recommendation made in response to VA's previous requests for public comments to earlier Task Force reports, including that that the Task Force meetings be made public and that ill Gulf War veterans serve on it.  


Resubmitting your prior recommendations until VA officials listen is encouraged.


As but one example from the VA "Fact Sheet" below:

"VA also recognizes the importance of studying other conditions that may affect Gulf War Veterans, such as brain cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS), and multiple sclerosis. ORD maintains very active research portfolios in each of these areas, with the aim of improving life for Veterans of any era who may be affected." 
...except that VA continues to violate the law mandating they contract with the Institute of Medicine to determine the prevalence of MS in 1991 Gulf War, OIF, and OEF veterans...  See p. 1, and Appendix E:  http://www.va.gov/RAC-GWVI/docs/Committee_Documents/CommitteeDocJune2012.pdf

...and VA has yet to do anything about the RAC's repeated findings regarding very high brain cancer rates in 1991 Gulf War veterans, first when it was found to be double among Khamisiyah cohort veterans, and again when it was found to be triple. 

...and despite years of evidence of dramatically increased rates of ALS in 1991 Gulf War veterans, VA merely granted a presumptive for service-connected disability compensation, which is of little comfort to those suffering from this almost always fatal, terrible disease.  VA could've learned a great deal from this outbreak of ALS among young 1991 Gulf War veterans, but there's no evidence VA has yet begun to try to do so.

The quotes in the VA "Fact Sheet" are just empty words from VA's Public Relations office, with no action to back them up and prove that they're true -- which they're not.


It's high time VA be held accountable, and for veteran "leaders" to hold them to doing what's right instead of echoing empty PR spin while veterans continue to suffer and die from these terrible neurological diseases, at least some of which are far more prevalent among veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. 

-A.H.  


***


 Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force 
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 
Fact Sheet 
February 2014 

Summary: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes and respects the service, dedication and many challenges faced by Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and is committed to continuing improvements in care and services for Gulf War Veterans through initiatives outlined in the 2012-13 GWVI Task Force Report. 

VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and is committed to ensuring Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. 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 (PTSD) or other mental health issues that arose as a result of being deployed. 

Research on the health of Gulf War Veterans has been and continues to be a priority for VA. VA appreciates members of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) for Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, and the valuable advice they provide to the Secretary on research studies, plans, and strategies aimed at improving our ability to serve Gulf War Veterans. 

Twenty three years have passed since the start of the deployment and combat operations known as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. These two military operations comprise the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Since then, many Veterans of that conflict have endured adverse health consequences. 

In 2009, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs directed the formation of the Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Task Force (GWVI-TF) to coalesce VA efforts to address the needs of these Veterans. In 2010, the VA recognized nine new diseases as associated with service in Gulf War If one of these diseases is diagnosed in a Veteran with service in the Gulf War, VA presumes that the circumstances of his/her service caused the condition, and disability compensation can be awarded. 

VA continues to provide health care and benefits to the Veterans of Gulf War and remains committed to improving care and services for Gulf War Veterans through initiatives outlined in the 2012-13 GWVI Task Force Report. The report focuses on efforts to improve the delivery of health care for Gulf War Veterans, including the launch of a prototype clinical care model that is a Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) specifically targeted to Gulf War Veterans. The report also addresses education of health care providers about Gulf War Veterans’ concerns, benefits for Veterans, communications, and outreach, scientific reviews and surveillance, and research and development. 

Key Facts: 

• VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and is committed to ensuring Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. 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 (PTSD) or other mental health issues that arose as a result of being deployed. 

• VA’s War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) locations in Washington, DC, East Orange, NJ, and Palo Alto, CA, were established in 2001 (DC and NJ) and 2008 (CA) to provide clinical care, education and research in the area of deployment health. The WRIISC continues to provide clinical programs focused on providing environmental exposure assessments and comprehensive medical evaluations for Veterans who have chronic, medically unexplained symptoms and/or difficult to diagnose symptoms that they believe are related to their deployment. The WRIISC also provides post-deployment health education to Veterans, families and loved ones of deployed Veterans, health care providers, and the general public. The WRIISC research program focuses on improving the health of deployed Veterans by researching innovative treatments designed to improve the health of deployed Veterans. 

• VA also recognizes the importance of studying other conditions that may affect Gulf War Veterans, such as brain cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS), and multiple sclerosis. ORD maintains very active research portfolios in each of these areas, with the aim of improving life for Veterans of any era who may be affected. 

• In 2010, the VA recognized nine new diseases as associated with service in Gulf War If one of these diseases is diagnosed in a Veteran with service in the Gulf War, VA presumes that the circumstances of his/her service caused the condition, and disability compensation can be awarded. These nine new diseases (listed below) can also be found at www.publichealth.va.gov/expposures/gulfwar/infectious diseases.asp

• Malaria 
• Brucellosis 
• Campylobacter Jejuni 
• Coxiella Burnetii (Q Fever) 
• Mycobacterium Tuberculosis 
• Non-Typhoid Salmonella 
• Shigella 
• Visceral Leishmaniasis 
• West Nile Virus 

Most of the above diseases must manifest at 10 percent disabling within one year of the end of qualifying Gulf War service to be presumptively service connected. Only Leishmaniasis and Tuberculosis can manifest at 10 percent disabling at any time after qualifying Gulf War service and still be presumptively service connected. 

• VA is continuing to improve care and services for Gulf War Veterans through initiatives outlined in the 2012-13 GWVI Task Force Report. • The report focuses on efforts to improve the delivery of health care for Gulf War Veterans, including the launch of a prototype clinical care model that is a Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) specifically targeted to Gulf War Veterans. 

• The report also addresses education of VA health care providers about Gulf War Veterans’ concerns, benefits for Veterans, communications, and outreach, scientific reviews and surveillance, and research and development. 

• VA asked for comments from Veterans, and has reviewed over 450 of them, incorporating suggestions and comments into the report.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES: VA Whistleblower's Gulf War, Other Allegations Substantiated

Today's International Business Times article,  "VA Concedes Whistleblower's Allegations Were True, Including That It Ignored Veterans' Suicidal Tendencies," reports that callous indifference, coverups, and retaliation by VA research staff has been substantiated.

Among the allegations a VA investigation substantiated:


  • VA personnel lost study results related to family members of veterans of the Persian Gulf War. The results related to whether diseases such as brain damage were passed from veteran parents to children due to toxin exposure during the war.
  • VA personnel did not follow up on some veterans who admitted to having suicidal ideas -- and who later committed suicide -- during a study of Gulf War veterans.
  • Some VA personnel retaliated against Coughlin for his involvement in highlighting deficiencies in VA studies.


We're now just waiting for the other shoe to drop to see what actions will be taken to prevent these egregious errors from reoccurring.  

Special thanks to VA leaders who helped ensure this investigation moved forward, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Subcommittee Chairman (and Gulf War Veteran) Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and especially Dr. Steve Coughlin, who gave up his career at VA to speak up and out on behalf of two generations of veterans.   Thanks, too, for award-winning journalist Jamie Reno for helping break this important news story that affects countless veterans through to the present.

-A.H.

p.s. -- *please* click on the link below so your view of this story is counted...


****

SOURCE:  International Business Times, Jamie Reno reporting (2/19/2014)
http://www.ibtimes.com/va-concedes-whistleblowers-allegations-were-true-including-it-ignored-veterans-suicidal-tendencies


ARCHIVED TEXT:

VA Concedes Whistleblower's Allegations Were True, Including That It Ignored Veterans' Suicidal Tendencies

on February 19 2014 3:42 PM



A government whistleblower who suffered retaliation from his agency has been vindicated by a Departmentof Veterans Affairs admission that it failed to reach out to 2,000 veterans in a research study who said they had suicidal ideas, many of whom later committed suicide.

The agency's admission, which has not been previously publicized, resulted from a congressional inquiry into the allegations of Dr. Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health, who disclosed that the VA was guilty of shocking ethical lapses.
It has been nearly a year since Coughlin told the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s (HVAC) Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that he had waged a protracted battle against his supervisors over ongoing and very serious problems at VA, including its failure to follow up with some 2,000 vets who indicated in a survey that they'd had suicidal thoughts.
Coughlin, who conducted surveys of 1991 Gulf War veterans as well as veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom--Afghanistan, also said that VA obscured facts about the impact of toxic exposures on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the causes of Gulf War illness, and that his bosses intimidated, bullied and admonished him for speaking out. His testimony last March prompted an inquiry of VA by the HVAC, and IBTimes has learned from Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the HVAC chairman, that just a few weeks ago, without notifying the media, VA informed Congress that its Office of Research Oversight had conducted an internal investigation and substantiated the following Coughlin charges:
  • VA personnel lost study results related to family members of veterans of the Persian Gulf War. The results related to whether diseases such as brain damage were passed from veteran parents to children due to toxin exposure during the war.
  •  
  • VA personnel did not follow up on some veterans who admitted to having suicidal ideas -- and who later committed suicide -- during a study of Gulf War veterans.
  •  
  • Some VA personnel retaliated against Coughlin for his involvement in highlighting deficiencies in VA studies.
  •  
According to Miller’s office, VA also assured the subcommittee that it would hold Dr. Michael Peterson, a VA employee specifically cited by Coughlin during the hearing, accountable for these failures.
“Now that VA has substantiated some of Dr. Coughlin’s most troubling allegations, it’s incumbent upon department leaders to detail the steps they are taking to hold the responsible parties accountable and ensure protections for future whistleblowers,” Rep. Miller told IBTimes. “Who was held accountable for not following up on veterans who later committed suicide? What happened to the VA personnel who retaliated against Dr. Coughlin? What is VA doing to foster a culture of tolerance for employees who have the courage to speak out against problems despite hostile opposition from coworkers and managers? America’s veterans, American taxpayers and VA’s more than 300,000 employees deserve answers to these questions in short order.”
VA would not answer any specific questions about Coughlin’s charges.
A spokesperson for VA sent IBTimes the following statement: “The Department of Veterans Affairsrecognizes and respects the service, dedication and many challenges of Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and is committed to improving the health and well-being of these Veterans. Research is a vital component in improving that treatment. VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and the department wants to ensure Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. “
The VA spokesperson also declined to answer questions about Coughlin’s supervisors because the Privacy Act precludes their discussing personnel matters concerning individual employees.
Whistleblower Coughlin, a Year Later
Dr. Coughlin, who quit his post at VA in December 2012 -- three months before appearing on The Hill -- was never told about VA’s validation of his charges. He only learned of it when contacted by IBTimes last week, and said he was “very surprised” by the agency’s response.
“These are very serious admissions on the part of the VA,” Coughlin said. “I took a beating trying my best to look out for the interests of U.S. veterans who were enrolled in our studies and other large-scale epidemiologic and clinical research studies conducted by VA. I hope that VA’s admissions are a sign that the situation is improving. Of particular concern is the rights and welfare of vulnerable research participants, such as people with severe depression or suicidal thoughts. My thoughts go out to the veterans.”
Coughlin said he’s paying attention to what happens next at VA, but from a distance -- both geographically and emotionally. The 56-year-old scientist, who has never felt comfortable in the spotlight, did his part, he said, and seems happy now to be out of the fray. He described the past year as one filled with emotional highs and lows -- the lowest being VA’s retaliation against him, which he said continued even after he left.
“After I left VA, I was removed as a co-author from two journal articles on which I had been listed as a co-author and which had already been submitted to epidemiologic journals,” he said. “When I found out that my previous supervisor had instructed the lead authors to drop me as a co-author, I emailed the chief of the Office of Public Health and the director of the VA Office of Research Oversight, and my name was added back to one of the two articles.”
Coughlin said after he left VA he was concerned that he would not be able to find another job and that he might lose everything.  
“It’s more difficult to find a position if you do not have a positive recommendation from your last employer,” he said. “I was very fortunate to receive strong support from my family. My older brother let me live rent-free in his spare bedroom for a year while I searched for a new position. I took a big financial hit by quitting my job at the VA in Washington, D.C. However, I enjoyed spending time with my mother, brother, and my nephews and nieces.”
Coughlin said that while being a government whistleblower has earned him respect and praise, it also probably kept some potential employers from hiring him. But with the support of academic colleagues around the country, Coughlin, who was previously associate professor of epidemiology and director of the program in public health ethics at Tulane University, and who once chaired the writing group that prepared the ethics guidelines for the American College of Epidemiology, was able to return to academia. 
“I have a great job now at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis,” he said. His job is as a senior researcher in the Research Center on Health Disparities, Equity and the Exposome, and a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine. (An exposome is a measure of the health effects of lifelong environmental exposures.)
“The focus of the center is on the pronounced black-white health disparities in Memphis,” he explained. “African-American women in Memphis have a twofold increased risk of dying from breast cancer and the city also has the highest infant mortality rates in the U.S."
In addition to finding satisfying new work, Coughlin said that what has kept his spirits up and reminded him that leaving VA and making his complaints public were the right thing to do are the supportive messages he’s received from veterans. 
“I’ve heard from hundreds of veterans who have contacted me to thank me for standing up on behalf of veterans and telling the truth,” he said. “My father was in the U.S. Navy and I have a nephew who was in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Integrity Award
Coughlin’s whistleblowing efforts are getting further validation by the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, whose Ethics and Philosophy committee has nominated him for its Research Integrity Award, citing his “exhibition of great personal and professional risk in relinquishing his position at the VA after his calls to stop the suppression of research findings and prevent needless death among research participants were left unanswered.”
ISEE, in its announcement of Coughlin's nomination for the award, said that his “inspirational show of courage and integrity in the face of ethical dilemma can be seen in his refusal to redact complaints made about a study protocol’s failure to include a provision for mental health intervention, even under threat of removal from the study. Coughlin’s extensive requests to have mental health providers contact participants were met with backlash from his superiors.”
ISEE concluded: "Dr. Coughlin’s highly ethical conduct makes him a living legend in modern environmental epidemiology. His actions should serve as an inspiration and model for epidemiologists both today and tomorrow.”
Coughlin said his nomination by the ISEE ethics committee, which includes 23 epidemiologists in countries around the world, “means a great deal to me as it is clear that they understand the importance of the efforts we made to ensure that a mental health professional reached out to research participants who self-reported suicide ideation.”
The award is presented each year at the ISEE annual meeting, this year to be held in Seattle in August, and Coughlin said he’ll be told if he won “sometime before that.”
As Congress debates how to proceed following the VA’s admissions, which were a direct outgrowth of Coughlin’s whistleblowing, he added, “It was very difficult at times for me to do what I did. But I have no regrets.”