The proposed budget could end wasteful VA research
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When discussing Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s presidency, the word controversial comes to mind for many. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal is no exception to this categorization.  

In recent years, the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has increased substantially, and the prevailing attitude from most lawmakers and veterans groups has been that increases in spending are good, and cuts to VA funding are bad. But, few budgetary matters are that black and white.

One benefit of Trump’s proposed budget, as noted by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is an acknowledgment that “throwing money at a problem rarely makes it go away” and that the VA’s budget deserves a “hard look.”

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At first glance, the VA seems to be one of the few agencies that will experience an increase in funding under the Trump plan — its total budget includes $186.5 billion, a nearly 6 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

 

However, most of the increased spending is aimed at the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive care from providers of their choice outside the VA, at the expense of other programs, such as benefits and medical research.

Many of these cuts have been met with concern from democrats and traditional veterans service organizations, who have focused their trepidations primarily around restrictions to VA’s individual unemployability benefits.

In so doing, groups have overlooked one potential budget cut that need not be so controversial, and is a potential win for veterans, advocates and the VA — the $30 million reduction in medical research.   

Although in its annual budget submission, VA touts is national research program as “play[ing] a vital role in the care and rehabilitation of our men and women who have served in uniform,” VA neglects to make any mention of its four medical facilities that still perform controversial research experiments on dogs.

Those four facilities, located in Los Angeles; Richmond, Va.; Milwaukee; and Cleveland; have been the recent targets of White Coat Waste Project, a bipartisan watchdog group that aims to end taxpayer funding for wasteful experiments on dogs.

As a result of documents obtained by the organization, a group of bipartisan lawmakers recently sent a letter to the VA asking for more details on the experiments, stating that “we are concerned that the VA’s description of these experiments as ‘observational’ is inaccurate and misleads Congress and taxpayers to believe that the studies are harmless” and that “without access to FOIA documents, we would not have known the VA was providing misleading information or that dogs were even used in these experiments.”

According to Justin Goodman, Vice President of Advocacy for White Coat Waste Project, “it is shameful that the VA is wasting taxpayers’ money to give puppies heart attacks, drill into dogs’ skulls, and run a breeding colony of narcoleptic Dobermans at a time when veterans are suffering and dying because they VA can’t provide them with basic care and services.”

Similarly, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who has co-sponsored recent VA accountability legislation, said in a statement that, “just as the VA was held accountable for delivering subpar care to our nation’s veterans, it should answer for the possible abuse of animals and waste of taxpayer funds on haphazard research.”

Based on documents obtained by White Coat Waste Project, other lawmakers are pushing the VA for more details on the troublesome experiments, too. In one letter to the VA, Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) wrote, “According to press reports, these disturbing and controversial experiments on dogs include everything from inducing heart attacks to invasive brain-damaging surgeries, which can leave animals severely maimed or dead ... While we should do all we can to ensure that veterans are getting the treatment and care they deserve, I also feel strongly that the public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent — and the extent of any experimentation on animals — at the VA.”

And, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a U.S. Air Force veteran, joined other Los Angeles-area members on a letter to the VA about the Los Angeles VA’s experiments on dogs. Lieu represents the Los Angeles VA’s congressional district, and told the LA Times, “We were not aware of it, and frankly, no one was aware of it ... No federal agency should be doing that. If this is true, these dogs are being abused.”

The VA’s budget proposal states that it will eliminate 24 research projects, with a stated aim of consolidating and focusing research funding on several priorities, including opioid addiction, Gulf War illness, and veterans suicide. Although consolidating its medical research programs into areas that most directly impact veterans healthcare is laudable, because VA has failed to transparently report the details of its research projects in the past, it is unclear whether the 24 projects being discontinued include any or all of the experimentation currently being performed on dogs. Nonetheless, the documents detailing VA’s current experiments on dogs focus primarily on narcolepsy and heart attack research, which do not seem to fall into VA’s enumerated research priorities listed in the budget proposal.

Further, in the event that VA fails to specifically acknowledge that it will eliminate its controversial research experiments on dogs through the budget process, lawmakers, including several members of the newly formed Animal Protection Caucus, are working on possible legislation that would prohibit federal funds from being spent by the VA on dog experiments involving pain or distress to the animal, including studies classified as USDA pain categories D and E.

Although many of Trump’s budget cuts, including those for veterans, are controversial, opinion surveys performed in recent years show that a majority of Americans are now opposed to “the use of animals in scientific research. ”Accordingly, if Trump’s proposed cuts to VA’s medical research budget include eliminating outdated dog experiments, this is one of the few areas where the Administration can escape controversy and even win praise from both sides of the aisle.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.


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