After Investigations, VA Relocates Its Texas Brain Lab

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

Three years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs established a laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin with high expectations that it would conduct state-of-the art research into combat-related brain injuries. Last month, VA announced it was moving the facility, after spending more than $3 million without testing a single veteran with traumatic brain injury.

The decision follows a two-year battle between VA and the former director of the Brain Injury and Recovery Laboratory, who has accused his superiors of fraud, mismanagement and wasting taxpayer money.

The department is reopening the lab at a VA hospital in Waco, Tex., and vows the work will progress at the new location, but veterans groups want assurances the new facility will have the equipment and expertise to conduct first-class research.

"Two years without any veterans being tested and millions of dollars apparently being spent is very frustrating," said Paul Sullivan, head of Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group that held a rally in Austin to protest the move.

The uproar has sparked a congressional inquiry, an investigation by the federal Office of Special Counsel and several internal investigations.

"This move will place our laboratory in an ideal location that will allow us to better serve our nation's military families and veterans," Gerald Cross, VA's acting undersecretary for health, said in a statement released by the department. "This program consolidation will enable VA to meet its mission of better understanding brain injuries and to help veterans recover from such injuries."

Researchers at Waco also will have access to what VA officials call the world's most powerful research MRI machine. The equipment "is equal, if not better, in Waco," said Diana Struski, a VA spokeswoman.

Veterans groups have held high hopes that the research would provide answers to some of the problems that have plagued veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Studies have estimated that about 20 percent of troops returning from those theaters have suffered traumatic brain injuries, though the injuries have proven difficult to detect in many cases.

"This is very important in the long term," Sullivan said. "We believe the brain scan equipment may find subtle injuries that could not be found before."

The laboratory was established by a $6.3 million VA grant awarded in 2003 in collaboration with the University of Texas, which houses a state-of-the-art brain scanner. Robert W. Van Boven, a neurosurgeon, was hired as program director in 2007. Within months, he complained that $1.2 million of the grant money had been wasted before his arrival, and he later alleged that superiors would not investigate his claims.

An investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General last year "partially substantiated" the allegation of mismanagement of department funds.

The investigation neither substantiated nor refuted alleged use of equipment for research of questionable scientific merit, but it did find "multiple deficiencies" in protocols.

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