Congress to probe VA research program after Statesman investigation

In the wake of an American-Statesman report exposing a dysfunctional brain research program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Center of Excellence in Waco, a U.S. House committee will investigate the department’s entire mental health research effort, according to members of Congress and committee staff.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco, told the Statesman on Friday that it’s time for “a broad discussion on the role of the VA in health care research,” and he said staffers with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs would begin scheduling a series of hearings on issues at the Waco center and beyond in early 2015.

A 10-month Statesman investigation into the Waco Center of Excellence’s brain imaging program found that the VA squandered millions of dollars and six years of research opportunity just as brain injuries were spiking among U.S. service members.

The newspaper found that the VA purchased a once-cutting-edge $3.6 million mobile MRI scanner in 2008 without a clear plan for success, was unable to recruit enough brain imaging experts and was paralyzed by internal squabbles.

One of its first proposed studies was supposed to scan Fort Hood soldiers before and after war deployments, a unique opportunity in the history of warfare. But researchers have been unable to complete any brain research on the machine amid concerns about image quality and mechanical breakdowns.

“I want to make sure that we don’t have the same issues at other centers of excellence,” said Flores, who repeated his suggestion that veterans research might be more effectively conducted by such agencies as the National Institutes of Health that are “wired for research.”

VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros said VA research in general “has benefited both veterans and the entire nation by moving medical science forward. VA investigators have played key roles in developing devices and techniques that revolutionized health care — such as the cardiac pacemaker, the CAT scan, liver and kidney transplants. Today, VA is a leader in many areas of research, including AIDS, mental health, genomics, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases and spinal cord injury.”

The VA oversees about $1.8 billion in research annually, and, in 2015, the VA plans to spend about $56 million on post-deployment mental health and $35 million on traumatic brain injury and neurotrauma study nationwide.

On occasion, critics have accused the VA of covering up research that might show links between deployments and medical problems. In 2012, a VA research advisory committee accused VA researchers of failing to “mount even a minimally effective program” to study Gulf War illness, vastly overstating the amount spent to study the illnesses affecting Persian Gulf War veterans and misrepresenting the state of scientific knowledge regarding Gulf War veterans’ health.

Yet compared with the VA’s medical and disability benefits branches, which have been beset by numerous scandals in recent years and months, the research arm has received relatively little scrutiny.

Flores made his comments after the House committee received information about the Waco Center of Excellence from the VA that he said confirmed that “the millions invested in the MRI machine continue to go to waste.”

The provided data also indicates that problems at the Waco center might go beyond its troubled brain imaging program.

In addition to its neuroimaging program, the center has several research sections conducting studies into traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder among combat veterans.

But, according to an employee roster, the center has more vacancies than employees and has entire research sections lacking staff. For example, the center’s biomarkers and genetics core consists of three open positions, and its assessment core consists of four vacancies, according to information the VA provided to the House committee. In all, the center has 27 vacancies and 23 employees among its 50 permanent and temporary positions, according to the document.

Last month, a top VA administrator defended the Waco center’s MRI program, arguing the “(l)essons already learned from this device have assisted in improving design of future units including those deployed to serve combat troops in the current conflict.”

In its letter to the House committee, VA officials touted more benefits, listing six studies that involved the mobile MRI’s support vehicle. But none utilized the MRI itself, leading Flores to accuse the VA of trying to make the situation “look better.”

“That doesn’t pass the smell test for the typical hardworking American,” he said.

In the last year, VA officials have hired both a new center director and a supervisor for its neuroimaging program and plan to restart research on the scanner once they reduce the vibrations they say led to its image quality problems.

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