Whistleblower: VA Withheld Health Studies On Soldiers’ Toxic Exposures

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 scheduled to testify to Congress Wednesday afternoon.

Stephen 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, according to an advance copy of his testimony received by the Conn. Health I-Team.

 “If the studies produce results that do not support OPH’s unwritten policy, they do not release them,” says Coughlin’s testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Oversight and Investigations 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.”

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.

VA officials are scheduled to testify today as well. The VA did not respond to phone calls seeking comment this morning.

Connecticut Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said the U.S. Department of Veteran’s 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 answer to this is to not have the science done by VA.”

Coughlin, now an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Emory University, quit his VA post in December “because of serious ethical concerns,” according to his testimony.

 His claims include:

 •   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 2,000 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. Eventually, mental health professionals were able to follow up and 48 of the veterans were referred for immediate assistance.

• 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.”

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.

This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).


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