The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suppressed information that shows links between health problems of veterans and the dangers they were exposed to in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War, according to a whistleblower who testified to a House panel Wednesday afternoon.
Steven Coughlin described an “epidemic of serious ethical problems” in the VA Office of Public Health, where he worked for 4 ½ years as a senior epidemiologist until December.
“If the studies produce results that do not support Office of Public Health’s unwritten policy, they do not release them,” said Coughlin, in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Oversight and Subcommittee.
“This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War. On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” he said.
Veterans’ activists have long complained that the VA has been loath to acknowledge connections between veterans’ health problems and the situations they faced in theaters of war. Agent Orange during Vietnam and Gulf War illness are two examples. The connection can make a huge difference for veterans in their benefits from the federal government.
In a prepared statement the VA said, “The Department of Veterans Affairs has a decades long history of conducting world-class research studies that meet accepted and rigorous scientific standards. Research on the health of Gulf War veterans has been and continues to be a priority for the VA. The department depends on this research to inform our decisions and guide our efforts in caring for Gulf War veterans. All allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully.’’
“The VA agrees with Gulf War veterans that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War…In 2010, the Administration recognized nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness, reflecting a determination of a positive association between service in the region and those diseases,’’ the VA statement said.
Coughlin was not the only witness venting frustration with the way VA treats health research and treatment.
VA doesn’t have effective treatments for Gulf War Illness, said Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran who suffers from chronic health issues. “…A cabal of federal bureaucrats and contractors work at every step to delay, defer, and deny, and even so far a to obfuscate and refuse to implement laws, policies and expert recommendations,” said Hardie, who sits on the Congressionally-chartered Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, known as RAC.
Lea Steele, an epidemiologist at Baylor University who studies the health of Gulf War veterans, said the VA continues to ignore science and minimize the seriousness of the Gulf War illness impact. A large study this year of Gulf War veterans, for instance, doesn’t even ask about symptoms from the illness.
“This is a wasteful and inexcusable missed opportunity at best and something akin to scientific malpractice at worse,” Steele said.
Victoria J. Davey, chief officer of public health for the VA Health Administration, said the department was committed to care for all veterans.
“VA intends to continue our ongoing efforts to improve our abilities to provide health care for Gulf War veterans; to better educate our health care providers; and to expand the evidence basis for the treatments we provide for Gulf War veterans, and all veterans,’’ Davey said.
In his testimony, Coughlin, now an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Emory University, claimed:
• His supervisor told him not to look at data on hospitalizations and doctors’ visits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan when studying the relationship of their health problems to exposure to burn pits and other inhalation hazards.
• VA officials at first refused to set up a system to offer intervention for veterans who told surveyors that they had suicidal feelings that they would be better off dead. Coughlin was threatened with disciplinary action by his bosses during the process. He successfully appealed the decision to higher ups and eventually, mental health professionals were able to follow up with the troubled veterans.
• VA officials arranged for five speakers to brief the medical panel studying Gulf War illnesses with views that Gulf War syndrome is psychiatric “although science long ago discredited that position,” Coughlin said.
• When Coughlin tried to make changes recommended by experts to a study of Gulf War veterans, his supervisors killed the idea by falsely claiming it would cost $1 million to do so, he said.
• VA needs a better system for safeguarding data of studies and making it more widely available to researchers. One database of Gulf War veterans’ family members that was mandated by Congress was lost forever by a computer in Texas, he said.
Coughlin said some of the health research done by VA costs tens of millions but doesn’t serve the interests of veterans. He called on Congress to force change. “In view of the pervasive pattern where these officials fail to tell the truth, even to VA leadership, the VA cannot be expected to reform itself.”
Connecticut Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has long had a problem of conflict of interest in its health studies.
“There is much more effort put into disproving this stuff than dealing with these issues up front,” said Schwartz, who studied Agent Orange and has a doctorate in public health from Yale. “It does a disservice to the veterans and our country.” VA’s research should be done by academic institutions, she said.
The hearing was called to look at the care for Gulf War veterans. Gulf War illness is a chronic illness with multiple symptoms, including muscle pain, fatigue, cognitive problems and rashes, that affects veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. Although it was initially dismissed as psychosomatic, scientists have linked it to a drug given to troops to combat nerve gas and to toxic pesticides.
A $10 million study that Coughlin worked on called the National Health Study of a New Generation of U.S. Veterans looked at the exposures faced by veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than a fifth of those veterans also served in the Gulf War, but the VA has not released the treasure trove of data that could shed light on their health effects from the earlier war. “Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published,” Coughlin said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, and the top Democrat on the committee, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona pressed Davey and other officials on why they are taking so long to develop better training for doctors and information for vets about the illness.
“I find the conduct of the VA embarrassing,” Coffman said, before asking the panel of VA officials if any of them were veterans. If there were, “I don’t think we’d be here today” he said, with an emphatic bang of his gavel.