VA Changes Gulf War Illness Committee’s Charter; Critics Call Actions ‘Retaliatory’

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON – VA’s Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses has been at the center of a controversy over its role, governance and makeup.

In June, Robert Jesse, MD, PhD, VA’s principal deputy under secretary of health, explained in a blog post that a departmental review of RAC’s charter had been completed in October 2012 and that changes were being made to align it “with similar VA charters in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the requirements of Public Law 105-368, § 104.”

RAC members, however, said the changes were retaliatory in nature and will be detrimental.

“Shinseki’s changes have destroyed the ability of this committee to be effective,” Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran who is a member of the committee, told U.S. Medicine.

The committee was created by Congress in 1998 and first appointed by Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Anthony J. Principi in 2002, according to VA.

Changes to the new charter, signed in May by the VA secretary, included removing language that stated that the committee “shall assess the overall effectiveness of government research to answer central questions on the nature, causes, and treatments for health consequences of military service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the 1990-91 Gulf War.”

In addition, while the previous charter explicitly stated that RAC’s budget and staff would be decided by the Office of the Secretary, the new charter removes that language and simply states that “support for the committee will be provided by the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research and Development.”

Controversy is swirling around a committee chartered to assess the overall effectiveness of government research on health consequences of military service during the 1990-91 Gulf War after the VA changed its goals. The photo depicts servicemembers in the war zone.

Membership also will change with half of the committee’s current members being replaced and the chairman also serving for a limited time. RAC Chairman James Binns was “asked to stay for another year to help in the transition of new members and oversee the completion of the RAC’s major scientific review,” according to Jesse’s blog.

Responding to questions about the VA’s actions, Interim Chief of Staff Jose D. Riojas told Binns in a May 16 letter that the changes “will provide continuity for the committee and allow fresh perspectives as we move forward.”

He further said the committee was not a “watchdog” and that, as the new members join the committee, he will “provide more specific guidance regarding what the secretary expects from the committee.”

“VA has robust oversight and investigation capability to address alleged wrongdoing. We need the committee to be focused on the science and to provide the external perspective of the members on the research issues for which the committee was established,” Riojas said.

Changes Troubling

Hardie said the wording changes to the charter were troubling and essentially will mean the committee will lose its independence and instead be overseen by VA staff. He said he and other RAC members believe these changes were made because RAC and its members have been “outspoken on Gulf War health issues.”

In 2012, RAC concluded it had “no confidence in the ability or demonstrated intention of VA staff to formulate and execute an effective VA Gulf War illness research program,” after agency changes to a Gulf War Illness strategic plan resulted in a final version that RAC found unacceptable.

More recently, controversy ensued over Gulf War research at a congressional hearing this past March. Stephen Coughlin, MD, a former VA epidemiologist, accused VA’s Office of Public Health of manipulating and, at times, not disclosing Gulf War health data. Hardie also testified that VA Gulf War health research has often been “misguided.”

“In retaliation, staff has convinced you to turn the RAC into a typical VA advisory committee, eliminating its independence,” Binns wrote in a response to Riojas’ letter.

In another letter, RAC members Marguerite Knox, Joel Graves and Hardie wrote Shinseki that the “sweeping changes” related to RAC “must be swiftly reversed and much more must be done to rectify VA’s growing injustices against Gulf War veterans.”

Meanwhile, a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs source said last month that the committee has asked VA to provide a detailed explanation of the changes to the RAC’s charter and is awaiting a response before deciding on the next steps to take.

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