Whistleblower: VA Hiding Veteran Health Data

.In this undated file photo Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
In this undated file photo Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

A former epidemiologist for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs told lawmakers on Wednesday that the agency’s Office of Public Health buries or obscures research findings on veterans exposed to environmental toxins and hazards going as far back as the Persian Gulf War.

Steven Coughlin, who had worked more than four years for the VA before quitting over “serious ethical concerns” in December, said in testimony that leadership in the agency’s public health office did not want to find or reveal evidence that Gulf War illness and other sicknesses were linked to troops’ military experience.

"On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” he told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Coughlin said his former office never released findings of a $10 million study that produced data on 60,000 Iraq and Afghan war vets – of which up to 30 percent were Gulf War vets – that revealed exposures to pesticides, oil well fires and more.

He said the results of a congressionally mandated study on Gulf War veterans and their family members also was never released, and claims he was advised that “these results have been permanently lost.”

“Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published,” he said. One of Couglin’s former supervisors, Dr. Aaron Schneiderman, threatened retaliation against him after he balked at the idea of deliberately leaving out certain relevant data in a research project, Coughlin said.

Victoria Davey, chief of the VA’s public health and environmental hazards office, told lawmakers that the office follows strict guidelines in analyzing and publishing its work. However, but she never directly addressed Coughlin’s allegations.

In a statement released after the hearing on Wednesday, the VA said VA Secretary Erik Shinseki has ordered the VA’s Office of Research Oversight to review Coughlin’s claims, including the alleged threat.

Any retaliation against VA employees is against the law and is not tolerated, the statement said.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has a decade’s long history of conducting world-class research studies that meet accepted and rigorous scientific standards,” the statement read. “All allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully.

Coughlin said Schneiderman told him not to look at data regarding hospitalizations and doctors’ visits while he was working on research into the health effects of burn pits on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have reported serious respiratory problems that they believe are connected to inhaling smoke from the massive trash burn pits found in combat zones.

Coughlin told the House panel that when he said he did not want to continue in the project under those conditions, Schneiderman threatened him.

As with Vietnam veterans before them, large numbers of Gulf War veterans became ill in the years following the 1991 war. Those Gulf War veterans were told their problems were psychological.

The VA has said it does recognize there are health issues associated with Gulf War service, and notes that Shinseki formed a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of VA programs to help improve care and services for Gulf War vets.

The VA says in 2010 it recognized nine diseases linked to experience in the Gulf War.

According to Lea Steele, an epidemiologist with the Institute of Biomedical Studies at Baylor University, the VA still has serious problems in its approach – and funding – of Gulf War research.

She told Congress on Wednesday that scientific advances over the past 10 years have provided important insights into Gulf War illness. Steele has been studying Gulf War illness since 1998.

“After so many years of waiting, there is finally some hope for Gulf War veterans,” she said. “Hope that they will have answers that are long overdue and hope that treatments will be found that can meaningfully improve their health and their lives.”

“What is not acceptable is federal research that is poorly informed, based on notions developed in the early years after the Gulf War rather than on the scientific evidence now available,” she said.

VA has reportedly spent $120 million over the past decade on Gulf War illness research, but some of that money never went to Gulf War research, Steele said.

In one instance, $10 million was earmarked for something called a “Gulf War Biorepository Trust” that had nothing to do with Gulf War veterans. It was, instead, used to fund a brain bank for veterans who had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

As of 2010, only one of the 60 brains in the brain bank had come from a Gulf War veteran, Steele said. The others were those of older veterans.

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