Gulf War veterans critical of the Department of Veterans Affairs' record on addressing their health problems are hoping the VA's new health administrator is a sign things will change.
Dr. Robert Jesse, named Acting Under Secretary of Health after Dr. Robert Petzel resigned amid the scandal involving manipulated patient appointments that contributed to veteran deaths, was replaced on Wednesday by Dr. Carolyn Clancy, previously assistant deputy undersecretary for health for quality, safety and value.
Jesse had a history with Gulf War vets as the VA's point man on Gulf War Illness (GWI) research. It was a role that won him no praise from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses, a veteran-heavy group whose work Jesse sought to undermine, according to its chairman.
"The one personnel action that he did take [with the committee] was to propose full committee membership to two scientists whose view is that Gulf War Illness is connected to stress," RAC Chairman James Binns told Military.com. "Jesse is a very personable individual and we initially hoped his appointment would mean the VA's policy would change, but in fact he was just as much as advocate for the old policy."
The VA has long been criticized by veterans and advocates who say the department has dragged its feet on GWI research and refused to recognize that health problems are linked to exposures to oil well fires, depleted uranium, pesticides, and the pills troops to protect them from nerve agents. Reported health problems related to GWI include chronic fatigue, headaches and pain, memory problems, skin rashes and gastrointestinal disorders
Data recently released by the VA shows that 80 percent of disability claims filed by Gulf War veterans for conditions related to the war were denied.
Last March, a former VA epidemiologist testified that the department's Office of Public Health buries or obscures research findings on veterans exposed to environmental toxins and hazards going as far back as the Gulf War.
"Anything that supports the position that Gulf War illness is a neurological condition is unlikely to ever be published," Steve Coughlin told the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Binns said he has no dealings with Clancy and does not know what to expect. He is hoping she will be more aggressive and transparent in resolving GWI issues.
"Unfortunately, the pattern in the past is that a person connected with minimizing Gulf War Illness has been replaced by people who follow the same [thinking]," Binns said.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a Gulf War veteran and one of the strongest voices on Capitol Hill for that constituency, said he has been "extremely disappointed" at the actions and conduct of the VA, including Jesse, in addressing GWI and working with the Research Advisory Committee.
"Care for Gulf War veterans has stagnated and quite simply, VA is not conducting the necessary research," Coffman said on Friday. Coffman serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and chairs its subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
During a June 13 hearing Coffman demanded to know from Jesse if the VA was hiding data on Gulf War Illness, just as it has been found to be hiding information about manipulated patient wait times at VA hospitals across the country.
Jesse insisted that the VA is not hiding data.
"I have been told Dr. Jesse will be remaining in VA in a medical capacity as a physician and clinician," Coffman told Military.com. "I sincerely hope his medical skills will more positively impact veterans than his conduct toward the Research Advisory Committee for Gulf War Illnesses."
With Jesse going the way of Petzel, who was also viewed by Gulf War veterans as an obstacle to fully and honestly researching Gulf War Illness, Binns said this "is the opportunity for the VA to cleanse itself of these [past] practices that have created such a toxic culture."
"Now's the time to get [all the facts] out in the open," he said. "Start fresh rather than continue to hide some of these completely dishonest practices, which forces otherwise decent people to lie in the course of their job."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org