December 12, 2008 – In an ironic twist of fate, the Austin-based Veteran Affairs’ Brain Imaging and Recovery Laboratory may be getting shut down. The lab was created in 2006 to study and develop treatments for combat-related traumatic brain injury. Earlier this year, its director, neurologist Dr. Robert Van Boven, publicly accused his bosses at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System of fraud, mismanagement, and wasting taxpayer money.
Van Boven charged that more than $1 million in BIRL funds had been spent on a research project that had nothing to do with traumatic brain injury, had little scientific merit, and was being conducted by unqualified researchers. When Van Boven’s bosses at the Central Texas system ignored his gripes, he filed a complaint with the VA Office of Inspector General. A report released by the inspector general in July largely confirmed Van Boven’s allegations.
That very report may lead to the BIRL’s shuttering. The report prompted an internal probe by a committee of VA health-care officials complied by Timothy Shea, the director of the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network (or VISN 17), the organization that oversees the Central Texas system. “The panel has met, and there could be a possible recommendation to close the BIRL,” says VISN 17 public affairs officer Diana Struski. The decision, she says, is expected by the end of the month. Should the BIRL close, Struski says, its funding would likely be transferred to a unit in Waco studying combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.
Van Boven is hopping mad over the possibility of the BIRL closing. “Closing this sorely needed TBI program is throwing the baby out and keeping the dirty bathwater – managers who engage in misconduct, suppression, and inaction to disclosures of fraud, waste, and mismanagement,” he says. “The root problem is not the lab or its mission. The problem is [managers] who know nothing about science. Now they want to decapitate the center because its leader was speaking out against their shenanigans.”
The move could once and for all seal the fate of Van Boven, whom the VA has been trying to fire for months. Beginning last spring, Van Boven’s bosses began formal proceedings in an attempt to terminate him over a laundry list of trumped-up charges.
Last month, the VA notified Van Boven that he would indeed lose his job within two weeks. However, the federal Office of Special Council stepped in, and the VA agreed to a 60-day stay while the OSC conducts an investigation into possible whistle-blower reprisals against Van Boven. He remains on paid, nonduty status.