$3.6 million VA brain research program wasted money, investigators say


The $3.6 million machine was supposed to revolutionize our understanding of traumatic brain injury and other war injuries by studying the brains of Fort Hood troops before and after deployments to Iraq.

But that never happened.

Nearly a decade after the Department of Veterans Affairs bought the once cutting-edge, mobile MRI system, internal investigators have concluded that research efforts at the VA Waco Center of Excellence represented “a waste of taxpayers’ funds” and were an example of “poor stewardship.”

In a report released Thursday, the VA’s Office of Inspector General detailed years of research inactivity at the Waco center, where officials spent more than $200,000 in annual maintenance while the MRI machine largely sat unused.

The internal inspectors’ report confirmed the findings of a 2014 American-Statesman investigation, which found the VA had squandered a historic opportunity for combat-related research by purchasing the mobile scanner without a clear plan for success, failing to recruit enough brain imaging experts to make it work and allowing internal squabbles to paralyze the project.

READ: The American-Statesman investigation here

VA inspectors found the agency spent about $1.1 million on maintenance for the nearly five and a half years that the machine went unused between 2008 and 2015.

Inspectors confirmed that the scanner had not contributed to any published research studies as of 2015.

The report, however, didn’t assign blame to any specific VA employees for the debacle. The VA has since hired new leadership at the center and in April 2015 restarted brain scanning research with the machine.

In a response to the inspectors’ findings, VA Undersecretary of Health David Shulkin conceded that the machine was “underutilized” in the past, but that the department was “proud that our efforts have been successful in turning this program around in a relatively short period of time.”

Shulkin said the VA has started a redesign of the entire VA supply chain and changed how it manages such high-tech medical equipment as the Waco MRI system.

“Although this device has had a troubled history, I view this overall as a success story, in that new leadership has revitalized this program and put the Center on a productive pathway,” Shulkin wrote.

The Statesman investigation, published in September 2014, found that six years after the brain scanner’s debut not a single study based on the machine’s scans had been published.

By 2013, center officials suggested that the machine be returned because the VA didn’t know how to properly use or fix it. One suggestion from staffers for the MRI’s support vehicle: housing for lab rats.

After the Statesman investigation was published, the U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee launched its own inquiry into the VA’s overall mental health research effort.

Committee officials said Thursday afternoon that investigation into overall research is ongoing.

Former committee member Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, who previously suggested that research should be moved out of the Center of Excellence, told the Statesman last year he had changed his view after visiting the revitalized center.

The Waco MRI system is currently being used to research neurological disorders and collect data for treatment studies, VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen said Thursday. The Waco center has also started collaborating with the University of Texas to evaluate patients and provide them with real-time feedback on their neurological activity, Jacobsen said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Texas oil and gas regulator: Science isn’t settled on global warming
Texas oil and gas regulator: Science isn’t settled on global warming

Contrary to widely held conclusions by scientists, a senior official in Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency said Tuesday “we don’t know whether man-made greenhouse gases are impacting our climate in a harmful way.” Wayne Christian, a Republican elected in 2016 to the state Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas operations...
Abbott calls June 30 special election to replace disgraced congressman
Abbott calls June 30 special election to replace disgraced congressman

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered an emergency special election for June 30 to elect a U.S. representative for a congressional district that stretches from Corpus Christi to Bastrop and Caldwell counties. The winner will serve out the remaining months of the two-year term of U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, who resigned in early April...
Man arrested after SWAT standoff at La Quinta Inn in North Austin

NORTH AUSTIN Man arrested after SWAT standoff at La Quinta Inn Austin police have arrested a man who had threatened to shoot anyone who approached him in a North Austin hotel bathroom. SWAT officers used pepper spray to force the man to leave the lobby bathroom at the La Quinta Inn and Suites near the Domain shopping center, police said. A police spokesman...
Jam session with Austin musicians leads to fatal stabbing conviction
Jam session with Austin musicians leads to fatal stabbing conviction

A chance meeting between two Austin musicians led to the violent death of one man and a felony conviction for the other. James Miller, a former Austin police employee who took up the guitar in retirement, was found guilty Tuesday of criminally negligent homicide in the September 2015 stabbing of saxophonist Daniel Spencer. The two had gathered to drink...
Police search for Sun City prowler involved in 50 incidents since 2016
Police search for Sun City prowler involved in 50 incidents since 2016

Georgetown police are looking for a prowler in the Sun City retirement community who has never hurt anyone but has shown some very strange behavior. He rings doorbells and then leaves, lurks in backyards, stands outside people’s windows while talking on a cellphone and on several occasions has entered through unlocked doors and stood over the...
More Stories