“Closure of the (lab) would amount to a terrible injustice for our veterans,” according to a letter to congressional offices from Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “Conventional brain imaging is not sufficient to detect subtle injuries,” the letter says.
Decision on program housed at University of Texas in Austin expected in January.
December 18, 2008 – An Austin-based, multimillion-dollar program studying brain injuries among veterans might be canceled next month.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison , R-Texas, and Department of Veterans Affairs officials confirmed this week that there is talk of shutting down the Brain Imaging and Recovery Laboratory. Diana Struski, a VA spokeswoman in Fort Worth, said a VA deputy secretary in Washington will make the final decision.
The program, started by the VA in 2006, is housed at the University of Texas’ J.J. Pickle Research Campus, where the VA rents a state-of-the-art brain scanner. The program was looking for ways to treat traumatic brain injury, which has become the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the program has been on ice since early this year during a fight between the program director, Robert Van Boven, and his bosses.
Shortly after taking over the program in June 2007, Van Boven said his bosses had authorized the misuse of program dollars before he arrived and then ignored his complaints and began engaging in petty retribution. He has asked for several investigations.
One has been finished, and four are under way that should be finished by January, Struski said. She said Dr. Michael Kussman, a VA undersecretary in charge of the organization’s health care system, will then decide the brain-imaging lab’s fate, probably in January.
“We can’t speculate” on the likelihood the program will be canceled, Struski said.
The possibility of the lab’s closure has angered two veterans groups, whose leaders have written to members of Congress demanding that the program not be shut down.
Matt Mackowiak, a spokesman for Hutchison, said a regional VA director called an aide to Hutchison a few weeks ago and raised the possibility of ending Van Boven’s program. Mackowiak said Hutchison will get copies of the reports when they are finished and will withhold judgment until then.
Hutchison is the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that deals with veterans affairs. She requested the money for the program.
Van Boven is still being paid but has been suspended from VA work. He says shutting down the program while leaving his bosses unpunished amounts to “throwing out the baby and keeping the dirty bath water.”
One of the reports Van Boven requested is finished. Conducted by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, it partially confirmed Van Boven’s complaints. It concluded that VA officials wasted some money, mainly by misreading the contract with UT. But the dollar amounts it talked about were in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions that Van Boven alleged. The report found no evidence of the widespread cronyism Van Boven says took place. It did find that Van Boven’s bosses did not respond to his complaints.
Struski confirmed that four other investigations are ongoing. Struski said the VA investigators could recommend closing the lab, but she would not say what they are looking into or on what grounds they could conclude the program should be canceled.
Van Boven says one investigation is addressing his claim that the VA improperly and unsafely tried to restart his brain research in his absence. He says Central Texas VA administrators are trying in the meantime to stick him with trumped-up charges, such as insubordination for organizing a fun run to raise awareness of brain injuries. He said he did it on his own time after a VA lawyer said doing so was within Van Boven’s rights as an employee.
If the brain-imaging laboratory is closed, the remaining millions of dollars will be distributed to other VA programs in Texas, Struski said. She said a likely possibility would be to spend it on post-traumatic stress disorder research at the VA hospital in Waco.
Two veterans advocacy groups called for Congress to intervene and ensure that the program’s money is not used for other types of research.
“Closure of the (lab) would amount to a terrible injustice for our veterans,” according to a letter to congressional offices from Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, and Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
“Conventional brain imaging is not sufficient to detect subtle injuries,” the letter says.
This is at least the second time Van Boven has been involved in a bitter fight with an employer. In 2003, he established a private practice in Virginia, Minn., a town of about 9,000 that owns its own medical center. Less than two years after arriving, Van Boven began claiming that the facility was providing inadequate care and safety for its patients.
Medical center officials denied the allegations, according to news reports at the time. The fight ended with a settlement that paid Van Boven hundreds of thousands of dollars that the medical center had guaranteed he would be making. The medical center also paid his legal fees.
The settlement prohibited both sides from divulging specifics of the disagreement. But Van Boven later sued on the charge the medical center had defamed him. The medical center paid a $150,000 settlement.