Thursday, June 20, 2013

Our Sustained Commitment to Care for Gulf War Veterans

Twenty-three years have passed since the start of the deployment and combat operations known as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. These two military operations comprise the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Since then, many Veterans of that conflict have suffered from adverse health consequences.

We've come a long way in recognizing the illnesses suffered by Gulf War Veterans, and we have rejected the notion the symptoms result from mental health issues like post-traumatic stress.

That's why in the years following the first Gulf War, VA has continued to provide quality healthcare and benefits to those Veterans, and to invest in research to understand and treat Gulf War Veterans Illnesses, including Chronic Multi-Symptom Illness and related health areas. In 2009, Secretary Shinseki directed the formation of the VA Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses Task Force, previously led by former Chief of Staff and Gulf War Veteran John Gingrich, to better synchronize department-wide efforts to serve Gulf War Veterans. The VA's Interim Chief of Staff, Mr. Jose Riojas, also a Gulf War Veteran, continues this work.

The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (RAC) has led the way on crucial initiatives ever since. As a result of their work, VA has more than doubled the number of requested research projects on specific Gulf War areas of study. Additionally, VA has funded all proposals for Gulf War research that have met scientific and quality merit review standards. We've done that by increasing R&D funding directly obligated for Gulf War research to $7.3 million this year —a nearly $2 million boost from 2011.

In 2010, Secretary Shinseki recognized nine new diseases as associated with Gulf War service, reflecting a determination of positive association between service in the region and those diseases.

VA has relied on the RAC to provide expert advice to the Secretary on optimizing VA's Gulf War research portfolio. The most technological and current scientific tools are being deployed to better understand these complex illnesses. Recently approved research initiatives include investigations regarding biomarkers, imaging diagnostics, and clinical treatment trials, which have come from committee recommendations. The Committee's work has been invaluable to bring these issues to light and ensure they are high priorities within the Department from the top down.

As the Committee has matured, changes were made to the RAC 's charter to align it with similar VA charters in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the requirements of Public Law 105-368, § 104, for example Women Veterans and the Rural Health Advisory Committees.  VA completed a departmental review of the charter in October 2012. One notable issue was that membership terms have expired so there will be also a rotation of some Committee members.  Chairman James Binns has been asked to stay for another year to help in the transition of new members and oversee the completion of the RAC's major scientific review, a critical report that assists VA in setting Gulf War research priorities.

Make no mistake—the momentum the Committee has achieved to bring sweeping and lasting change to the research and treatment of Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses will not falter. We have turned a corner on this issue, and there is simply no going back. VA is continuing efforts to be responsive to the Committee's recommendations by increasing senior leadership engagement between the RAC Chairman, myself and Dr. Madhu Agarwal, Assistant Deputy Undersecretary for Health for Policy and Services.

VA knows we must continue the progress we've made together for our Gulf War Veterans. We must ensure every Gulf War Veteran is aware of the disability and health care benefits to which they may be entitled as the result of their wartime service and to assist them in accessing these services.

Since its inception, the RAC has been the catalyst for change and unquestionably guided VA to deliver on its core mission to care for our Nation's Veterans. They have my greatest confidence in continuing that mission, and we look forward to working with them to achieve our mutual goals.

For more information, read VA's recently released Gulf War Research Strategic Plan and the Task Force's Draft annual report.

Dr. Robert Jesse is the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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