VA tally overlooked many gulf war patients Federal agencies that discounted illnesses used incomplete data

November 25, 1996|By HARTFORD COURANT

The records U.S. federal agencies relied upon to conclude that Persian Gulf war veterans are no sicker than the general population excluded thousands of veterans treated for illnesses by doctors at federal clinics and by private doctors paid by the government.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' statistics also do not include other veterans who chose to go to private hospitals or doctors and pay for their own medical care.

In an interview last week, Dr. Frances M. Murphy, who is responsible for the Veterans Affairs Department's program to treat gulf war veterans, said the diagnoses of veterans who were treated by clinics and private doctors, rather than at VA hospitals, were left out of the department's computer databases. The oversight is being corrected, she said.

"The outpatient database is being revamped, and hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have the diagnoses being recorded," Murphy said.

Murphy played down the omission, saying comparative research can be conducted without it.

Others were angered to learn that the VA tally was incomplete.

"Two sets of books never sound good to an auditor," retired Army Maj. Barry Kapplan said Friday. Kapplan has been examined and treated for various gulf war-related illnesses by the Defense Department and the VA.

The number of veterans left out of the VA gulf war diagnostic databases is significant: As of March 1995, more than 10 times more gulf war veterans had been treated at clinics than the number who had been admitted to VA hospitals.

As of March 1995, 13,326 gulf war veterans had been hospitalized in VA facilities, compared with 155,682 who had sought clinic outpatient treatment, VA records reveal.

To date, 220,313 of the 690,000 soldiers who served in the gulf war have made some form of VA contact, including for medical concerns they might have had since the war. More than 66,141 who believe they may have a gulf war-related illness -- ranging from cancer and heart disease to a neurological disorder -- have registered for health exams.

The VA and the Defense Department separately have collected information on gulf war illnesses. Although nearly six years have passed since the end of the 1991 war, the two departments have not consolidated their records to establish how many gulf war veterans overall are sick or have died.

Two well-publicized recent studies, supported by federal doctors, have suggested that gulf war veterans are not falling ill or dying at an extraordinary rate.

One study, relying on VA data, said that gulf war veterans as a group do not show an abnormal death rate from disease, suicide or homicide. The other, relying on Army, Navy and Air Force data, said that the hospitalization rates of gulf war veterans on active duty are not any different from the rates for military personnel who did not go to the war.

Both studies were published this month by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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