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.
A subsequent investigation by the Office of Research Oversight for the Veterans Health Administration found that the program's "research activities lacked appropriate administrative supervision."
A team from the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations visited Texas last month to look into the allegations and interview VA officials.
Van Boven was fired in January, which the doctor alleges was in retaliation for his whistleblowing. VA cannot discuss the reasons for Van Boven's termination, Struski said.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that protects federal employees from reprisals for whistleblowing, has completed its investigation and has begun its legal analysis, according to David Marshall, a lawyer representing Van Boven.
"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on whether or not we are investigating a matter," said Darshan Sheth, an OCS lawyer.
Van Boven has told the committee staff that the move to Waco is an attempt by VA to sweep problems under the rug, and that it will squander the benefits of "incomparable" neuroscience research at the University of Texas at Austin.
John Miterko, head of the government affairs committee for Vietnam Veterans of America, said his organization is concerned the decision to move to Waco may have been "made precipitously" in response to Van Boven's allegations.
"Is this a knee-jerk reaction because he was a whistleblower?" Miterko said. "That I don't know. That's why I'd like to see these investigations carried out."
Struski said the problems uncovered at the laboratory in Austin were "part of the decision" for the move. She said VA also wanted to eliminate "a lot of duplication" with work that will be conducted at the Waco facility, which is getting a $49.9 million upgrade.
VA says the Waco location will also enable it to work with service members stationed at nearby Fort Hood, the largest U.S. Army installation in the world.