Failures Burden VA
Byline: Audrey Hudson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq increasingly are suffering from mental trauma that dampens their homecomings, hobbles their re-entry into civilian life and imperils their continued military service - a situation the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has sought to address with treatment, counseling and even drug experimentation.
But even as the VA has worked to provide quality health care for millions of veterans at its facilities across the country, it has endured a series of failures - from not notifying test subjects about new drug warnings to ignoring safeguards during experiments. Those failures have damaged the reputation of the agency charged with supporting vulnerable veterans.
But it also has compromised the speedy recovery of those vets.
President-elect Barack Obama, who has named retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as incoming VA secretary, will have to deal with those long-standing discrepancies in the agency, as well as seek out new solutions to remedy the mental health problems plaguing an ever-growing population of veterans.
Wars are supposed to end when the last shots are fired, but some of our new veterans will unfortunately have to cope with internal demons that may last their lifetime, said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The Washington Times has focused throughout the year on the VA and scrutinized the agency's handling of human subject drug tests using veterans, its treatment of veterans and the impact it has on service members and their families.
An often disturbing picture of a bureaucratic health care system that is disconnected from its charges has emerged.
The situation at the VA is becoming more urgent, though. A recent study by the Rand Corp. shows that one in five veterans returning from theater in Iraq or Afghanistan will suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mr. Obama's pledge to draw down some 146,000 troops from Iraq over the next sixteen months will increase the VA's burden to diagnose those returning soldiers who are suffering from PTSD and to provide treatment.
It also will increase pressure on the federal government to conduct even more questionable clinical trials on this vulnerable population to find a cure for the elusive psychological trauma.
Despite heightened risks in trying to study drugs in a vulnerable population like recently returned vets with PTSD, the currently available treatments are not especially useful or efficacious, said Arthur Caplan, medical ethicist and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
So more studies will surely be undertaken, he said. This means those charged with human subjects protection will have to be especially vigilant.
In a joint investigation, The Times and ABC News first reported June 16 that the federal government is using thousands of military veterans suffering from PTSD for voluntary clinical trials; several test psychotropic drugs linked to suicidal behavior.
The trend likely will continue. Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are increasingly being recruited for new experiments.
Medical research is vital to understanding and treating such maladies, but equally important is that research subjects know what they're getting into, Mr. Davis said.
Military veterans have already voluntarily done more for their country than virtually everyone else. They must not be used unwittingly for the sake of science, Mr. Davis said.
Drug testing on vulnerable veterans, failures by the VA to notify study participants when new drug warnings were issued and high suicide numbers among the retirees dominated the agenda of veteran support groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill this year.
Gen. Shinseki will be responsible for shaping the future of medical research conducted on veterans with PTSD and to develop new and innovative treatments including stricter ethical standards. …