Opposition to VA Research Restrictions Continues to Grow

On July 26, the House of Representatives approved a measure that would halt VA research with dogs even when the animals receive the same kind of anesthesia, analgesia, and post-operative care provided to pets and human patients undergoing surgery. Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) offered the provision as an amendment to a bill that included the VA’s FY 2018 appropriations. The amendment was approved by voice vote. Brat said the measure was a response to controversy generated by the White Coat Waste Project, which wrote to the VA Inspector General in March alleging “egregious transparency and accountability failures and animal welfare abuses in controversial dog experimentation” at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.

APS President Dennis Brown rebutted the White Coat Waste Project’s accusations in letters to the chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees responsible for VA funding. Underscoring the importance of research with dogs as part of efforts to develop treatments for serious medical conditions affecting veterans, Brown urged Congress to strike the Brat amendment from the final version of the bill. Brown noted that the problems at the Richmond VA had been promptly identified and corrected. “We therefore believe that these incidents should not be allowed to define a program that has done so much to support the health and quality of life of our nation’s veterans,” Brown wrote.

Opposition to the Brat amendment spread rapidly among organizations representing veterans and the research community. On September 12, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin published an op-ed in USA Today, in which he said that the amendment threatened the VA’s mission to “push the envelope constantly in search of medical advancements that will help improve the lives of disabled veterans.” Shulkin called upon Congress to “preserve humane and carefully supervised canine research at VA.”

Sherman Gillums, Jr., the Executive Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, pointed out in an interview in Stars and Stripes that importance of the research was never considered during the Brat debate on the House floor. “The catastrophically disabled veteran population, I think, might give balance to this discussion that they had without us in the room,” Gillums told Stars and Stripes. In an earlier opinion column published in The Hill, Gillums noted that the lives of paralyzed veterans “will never be the same as our lives before service, but advances in research will help us experience lives with less pain—and more hope.”

The American Legion also went on record against the Brat amendment. “Stopping VA research that can only be done with dogs will mean accepting that the care we offer our veterans must be limited to what we can do now in those areas,” American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan said in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran. Rohan urged that the Senate VA be permitted to “continue research vital to advancing the medical wellbeing of our nation’s veterans.”