Congress demands VA investigation

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle Tuesday called for investigations into the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) failure to inform in a timely manner veterans participating in medical tests that a drug they were taking has side effects that can lead to psychosis and suicide.

Responding to an investigative report published in The Washington Times Tuesday, Mr. Obama, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the VA’s actions in sponsoring the drug tests were “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”

“Our veterans - particularly those suffering from mental health injuries - should have the very best health care and support in the world, they should never be needlessly exposed to drugs without proper notification of the dangers involved or effective monitoring of the side effects,” said Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat.

Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, sent a letter to the VA inspector general and the VA’s chief research and development officer requesting an investigation.

“I am troubled by allegations that these safeguards may have not been in place for this study and I am requesting an immediate investigation into this matter and I asked that VA report back to me as soon as possible,” he said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Congress also will look into the matter.

“This report raises many disturbing questions about the treatment of our veterans and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will get to the bottom of this,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “We expect full and immediate cooperation from the VA.”

The VA took three months to notify its patients about severe mental side effects of the anti-smoking drug Chantix, after the Food and Drug Administration issued an alert about side effects that could lead to psychosis and suicide.

The VA said notification letters were tied up in bureaucracy, but thought the three-month time frame was not unrealistic. The VA also said warnings about suicide were omitted from the letter notification because many veterans are elderly or have eyesight problems.

“This is the most pathetic excuse that can be dredged up; it’s insulting,” retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger Charles, editor of DefenseWatch, the Internet newsmagazine of Soldiers for the Truth, said Tuesday.

“And then to brag you got it done in three months because of a cumbersome bureaucracy? What if people’s lives were at risk? Oh wait, they are,” Col. Charles said.

The VA continues to test Chantix on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even as the Federal Aviation Administration has banned airline pilots and air traffic control personnel from taking the drug, citing the adverse side effects.

Arthur Caplan, one of the nation’s premier medical ethicists, said the VA’s behavior in the anti-smoking study violated basic protections for humans in medical experiments, The Times reported.

The White House on Tuesday defended the VA, saying the program is designed to help soldiers with PTSD.

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