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Ex-VA worker: Negative data hid, manipulated

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By USA Today
Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs officials purposely manipulate or hide data that would support the claims of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent paying costly benefits, a former VA researcher told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

“If the studies produce results that do not support the office of public health's unwritten policy, they do not release them,” said Steven Coughlin, a former epidemiologist in the VA's public health department.

“This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War,” Coughlin said. “On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible.”

Coughlin testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that the VA routinely minimizes research that would bolster the claims of veterans suffering from the series of symptoms associated with Gulf War illness, as well as health issues linked to exposure to large burn pits and dust in Iraq.

Top officials in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System have avoided questions about why they waited until Nov. 16 to notify the public about a Legionnaires' outbreak — more than two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied two Legionnaires' cases to the VA Oakland hospital's water supply.

Many families claim they weren't told there were Legionella bacteria in the water system at the VA hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara when the system was shut off in late 2012 for flushing in response to the outbreak. At least one family has filed a notice of intent to sue the VA Pittsburgh, and spokesman David Cowgill has cited pending legal action as one of the reasons for declining comment.

Coughlin's allegations echo previous cases in which the VA was slow to respond to health problems in veterans, ranging from exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, to Gulf War illness, to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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