Early on the morning of Sunday, April 13, people watching the news learned that seven missing American soldiers from the Iraq war had been rescued. It was great news. But those who read the New York Times that day discovered that the Bush administration had ordered a review of medical research at 115 veterans’ hospitals. The review followed disclosures of serious violations of federal rules regarding the safety of human patients in medical projects in VA hospitals, including some that may have contributed to the deaths of patients.
Vera Hassner Sharav of a patients’ rights group called the Alliance for Human Research Protection saw a lesson here: “Veterans returning from service in the military deserve better than the medical care that awaits them at the nation’s Veterans Affairs medical centers.” She noted that the Associated Press reported just two days earlier on a study showing that patients suffering heart attacks who are treated at VA hospitals have a significant greater chance of dying than those treated at civilian hospitals under Medicare.
Coming on the heels of the incredible military victory in the Iraq war, the New York Times story about a review at 115 VA hospitals was a shocker. But Vera Hassner Sharav said it was not clear who is charged with conducting the investigation cited in the Times story because the VA HAS attempted to disband the independent Office of Research Compliance and Assurance that is supposed to monitor such abuses. This office had been established after the last scandal in 1999.
That scandal involved the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, where an investigation found records were altered to make patients appear sicker or healthier than they actually were so they could be enrolled in experimental studies. Subjects were given drugs they should not have gotten. It was also discovered that a researcher had been hired after having his medical license revoked. The Bureau of National Affairs reported, “VA investigators have concluded the actions probably caused one death and may have caused at least four more. An ongoing federal criminal investigation could bring murder charges.”
Jayne M. Steubing, the widow of one Albany patient, Carl Steubing, has sued the center, charging that researchers falsified test results and improperly enrolled her husband in the trial of a cancer drug that hastened his death from stomach cancer. Carl Steubing was a decorated veteran, having won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star at the World War II Battle of the Bulge. The Governor of New York named a day in his honor “for his lifetime of extraordinary contributions to the community and to humanity.”
The VA’s Office of Research Compliance and Assurance was designed to make sure VA facilities follow ethical and safety standards. In January the VA decided to merge it into another office. Representative Steve Buyer of Indiana, a Gulf War veteran, has introduced a bill to ensure that oversight of veteran’s health care remains truly independent. It has been referred to the Committee on Veterans Affairs.