LINDA STEWART BALL
The Associated Press
DALLAS (AP) - Citing persistent compliance and performance deficiencies, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs canceled a $75 million, five-year research contract with a Texas medical center studying illnesses suffered by veterans of the first Gulf War, officials announced Wednesday.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, has been pushing to end the sole-source contract with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He could not be reached for comment.
The VA said research on the illnesses, however, remains a priority.
"As part of our commitment to this vital effort, we must make certain that our resources are used to support effective and productive research," Dr. Gerald M. Cross, VA's Acting Under Secretary for Health said in a statement.
Dr. Robert Haley, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center epidemiologist who has lead the research project, also could not be reached for comment.
But a University of Texas Southwestern spokesman called the VA's "unilateral decision" to cancel the contract surprising and regrettable.
"We strongly disagree with the VA's characterization of the facts related to our Gulf War research contract," said John Walls, assistant vice president for public affairs at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "We were surprised to learn of their action, especially since we have been working diligently and in good faith with the VA to resolve all areas of disagreement."
The VA listed several reasons for not renewing the contract, including UT Southwestern's failure to comply with contract terms and conditions.
The VA noted that its Office of Inspector General outlines the dispute in a July 15 report, which seemed to revolve around Haley's reluctance to give the VA the medical records of some who participated in the study. That report recommended that no further task orders be issued under the contract.
Wednesday's announcement came the same day the VA met with UT Southwestern staff to resolve some of the issues, said Tim Doke, vice president for communications, marketing and public affairs at the medical center.
Doke said UT Southwestern would like to convert its contract with the VA into a more traditional research grant, which he said was less complex.
"I think it is safe to say that we are going to continue to engage with them," Doke said.
Money for the UT Southwestern contract was added to a 2005 spending bill by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas when the GOP had the majority in Congress.
"Southwestern has worked to comply with all the VA's contractual demands but the VA bureaucracy apparently did not reciprocate in good faith," Hutchison said in a statement. "The biggest losers are the thousands of affected Gulf War veterans who have fought the VA for years to recognize their illness as real."
Troops returned from the first Persian Gulf War with chronic illnesses ranging from fatigue to Lou Gehrig's disease. Some have questioned whether soldiers' illnesses resulted from battle stress or exposures to toxic substances.
Haley and UT Southwestern began researching Gulf War illness in 1994 at the request of Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot, whose help was sought by about a dozen soldiers suffering from symptoms, including disabilities in their children.
A spokesman for Perot said the billionaire wouldn't comment on the contract cancellation.
Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran who heads an advocacy group called Veterans Common Sense, said he wants the VA to start funding other research and treatments immediately. He also said the VA should use a new Waco facility that focuses on brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, problems largely found in Iraq war veterans.
"We hope it can pick up Gulf War illness soon so there will be no lost time," Sullivan said. "We want to make sure Gulf War illness maintains a high profile and high priority."
An estimated 175,000 to 210,000 veterans of the first Gulf War suffer multiple symptoms that are considered Gulf War illnesses, according to VA research.
Associated Press writers Suzanne Gamboa in Washington, D.C., and Andre Coe in Dallas contributed to this report.