Lawmakers Hear Concerns About VA’s Treatment of Gulf War Health Issues

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WASHINGTON, DC—Lawmakers were told that VA “continues to provide mixed signals and vague or inaccurate representations concerning the reality and nature of Gulf War Illness,” by a professor at a recent hearing.

“VA has been slow to clearly and accurately acknowledge the Gulf War Illness problem,” said Lea Steele, PhD, Baylor University research professor of biomedical studies and director of the university’s Veterans Health Research Program.

The accusations came at a hearing examining VA’s treatment of Gulf War health issues. An IoM report released in January pointed out that about one-third of Gulf War veterans suffer from long-term medically unexplained symptoms known as chronic multisymptom illness (CMI), also commonly called Gulf War Illness or Gulf War syndrome.

“Gulf War Illness has significant physical effects on the lives and wellbeing of those veterans. We need to make sure that VA can and does make every effort to accurately identify, diagnose and treat them in a timely fashion. To be sure, it should not take another 20 years for us all to get this right,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, (R-CO) who chaired a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing on the issue.

 Gulf War Veterans

 Steele told the committee that in some parts of VA, “there appears to be backward movement with actions that seem intended to ignore the science and minimize this condition as a problem,” when it comes to Gulf War Illness.

She also said that when it comes to research that VA “has not managed an effective program that has achieved targeted priorities for Gulf War veterans.”

Another scientist, Steven Coughlin, PhD, Emory University adjunct professor of epidemiology, also criticized VA. He told lawmakers that he resigned his position as a senior epidemiologist in VA’s Office of Public Health in December 2012 because of “serious ethical concerns.”

Coughlin accused the Office of Public Health of not publishing research results that do not support the office’s unwritten policies.

“On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” he said.

He also said that “anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to be published,” by the office.

Victoria Davey, chief officer in VHA’s Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, did not directly address the accusations at the hearing, but told lawmakers that VA provides veterans with CMI “personalized, proactive patient-driven care.”

“This is our message: VA has learned a great deal about identifying, diagnosing and treating Gulf War veterans over the past 22 years. We will continue to improve our abilities to provide world class healthcare for Gulf War veterans, better educate our healthcare providers and…expand the evidence base for the treatments we provide these veterans.”

Davey acknowledged that the cause of CMI is still under investigation.

“Our present thinking is that a complex combination of environmental exposures and individual genetic characteristics may be behind this illness,” she said.

Davey also said that VA is improving communication “among VA healthcare providers and between them and the patients they care for.”

“We are modifying our patient satisfaction measurement tools and training our staff to better recognize CMI,” she explained.

Coffman, who is a Gulf War veteran, ended the hearing by saying he found VA’s conduct “embarrassing” on the Gulf War health issue.

“If there were Gulf War veterans in senior positions in the Veterans Administration I don’t think we would be here today,” he said.

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