WASHINGTON (AP) - At a hearing examining the state of health research into Gulf War illness, a former VA researcher accused the department of minimizing the problem and voiced concerns that it was not following up properly with veterans who indicated in research studies they are potentially suicidal.
Dr. Steven Coughlin, who worked at the VA until December, said nearly 2,000 participants in a recent VA study of 60,000 tracking the health of veterans told researchers they had thought they would be better off dead. However, only a small percentage got a call back from a clinician. He said he was successful in getting the VA to call back on a separate study, but only after going to higher authorities within the department and complaining to the VA's inspector general.
Coughlin urged the House subcommittee to require that the VA immediately identify ways to ensure that veterans who participate in large-scale studies get appropriate follow-up care, something that Rep. Mike Coffman, chairman of Veterans Affairs' subcommittee dealing with oversight and investigations, said he was interested in pursuing through legislation.
Coughlin's request was part of a congressional hearing about the treatment of veterans from the first Gulf War. An estimated 175,000 to 250,000 veterans from that war struggle with a debilitating cluster of symptoms that include fatigue, headaches, joint pain and respiratory problems, commonly referred to as Gulf War illness. Coughlin and two other witnesses were critical of the VA's research on Gulf War illness.
In a written statement, the VA said research on Gulf War veterans has been and continues to be a priority. The department noted that it has worked to make it easier for Gulf War veterans to obtain VA health care and disability compensation.
In response to Coughlin, the department said "any retaliation against VA employees is against the law and is not tolerated by the department. The secretary has directed the Office of Research Oversight to review the allegations and report their findings."