The Department of Veterans Affairs was accused before Congress this week of numerous accounts of negligence, including hiding or obscuring research data involving Gulf War veterans and failing to treat former soldiers outright.
For example, roughly 2,000 military participants in a recent survey said they had felt in the previous two weeks that they’d be better off dead. Only a small percentage of them received follow-up calls from a mental health clinician, testified Steven Coughlin, Ph.D., MPH, adjunct professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta.
In addition, Coughlin said he co-authored a paper from the same survey on the relationship between inhalational exposure during the war and asthma and bronchitis, but a superior at the VA told him to disregard data Coughlin deemed essential to understanding the link.
The hearing highlighted issues with the care Gulf War veterans are receiving 20 years after combat, and follows a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on Gulf War illness—sometimes called chronic multisymptom illness. The condition is defined as the presence of a range of chronic, medically unexplained symptoms experienced for 6 months or longer in at least two of six areas: fatigue, mood and cognition, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, respiratory, and neurologic.
No consensus exists as to the cause of chronic multisymptom illness. But the IOM report pegged its prevalence at about 25% to 35% of the 1991 Gulf War veterans—about 175,000 to 250,000 people—with evidence that it is occurring in veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well. Many treatments used by the VA have methodical flaws, the report found.
The VA has been lax in addressing this issue, Gulf War veteran Anthony Hardie said, noting that the agency has not implemented expert advisors’ strategic plans and recommendations, he said. The VA still has no proven effective treatment and still considers the illness a psychological issue, [a position that science long ago discredited, Coughlin said.]