The VA discounts animal research as invalid when it comes to informing decisions about benefits and medical care for service-disabled veterans, but now Secretary Shulkin dubiously defends the practice as “necessary” when his agency stands to lose taxpayer funding and upset corporate partners. VA can’t have it both ways and the evidence doesn’t look good.
By law, any VA research, including canine research, must contribute to advancements in spinal cord injury research or “research into injuries and illnesses particularly related to service.”
Of all the current dog experimentation projects conducted by VA — of which there are 8 or 9 — only one appears to be related to spinal cord injury. Almost all of the others address cardiac irregularities or ailments not generally associated with military service-related disabilities despite the law. This is the VA research Sec. Shulkin says disabled veterans “need” to continue.
This is alarming because disabled veterans exposed to burn pits — a crude and toxic disposal method for waste, batteries, fuel, trash and other materials burned by military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan — urgently need research and solutions for service-connected disability benefits and health care. But the VA is expending resources on research that has nothing to do with that population or other service-disabled veterans.
Here in Minnesota, we recently lost Amie Muller — a 36-year-old wife and mother of three — who was exposed to burn pits at Balad air base, on deployments in 2005 and 2007. She died of pancreatic cancer, a disease believed linked to burn pit dioxins. Countless other disabled veterans have suffered the same fate.
Surely VA researchers are rushing to help those disabled veterans receive benefits and health care through research resources, including canine research, right?
VA and other authorities formerly relied on animal research, including canine research, to measure the effects of toxic exposures on veterans from Agent Orange, but those same organizations no longer consider animal research valid for that purpose, telling the New Republic that such studies would be “difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to conduct.”
If canine research isn’t valid for confirming exposure-related illnesses in disabled veterans, how is it now “necessary” and “essential” to helping disabled veterans?
Veteran Warriors CEO Lauren Price says VA is speaking “out of both sides of its proverbial face” in refusing to consider animal research valid when it comes to veterans’ toxic exposure but insisting it’s needed for a host of non-veteran-specific research with questionable benefits for anyone.
Despite my repeated requests to VA press secretary Curt Cashour, VA has yet to name a single veteran-focused medical advancement that has ever resulted from dog testing in nearly 100 years of VA research.
Not only that, but Cashour could not point to a singular business case to support continued VA canine research, now. In fact, there’s only one 21st century innovation VA claims its canine research was involved in.
Specifically, in his USA Today op-ed, Sec. Shulkin wrote, “VA canine research has resulted in the first FDA approval of an artificial pancreas — a significant breakthrough that will make real differences in veterans’ lives.”
Given the VA’s penchant for stretching the truth, this claim deserves dissection.
The secretary is referring to a device called MiniMed 670G, which was developed by the for-profit medical device company Medtronic that received FDA approval in 2016 on the back of research from as early as 1991.
For some background on Medtronic, in 2014, the company moved its headquarters from Minnesota to Ireland in a move Fortune Magazine included in its list of offshore “Positively un-American tax dodges.” The Irish company and other large corporations have given VA money for use of agency canine research resources over the years.
As for the MiniMed, it struck me that VA was not mentioned in any of the press surrounding the FDA approval of this device. So, I contacted Medtronic for comment on VA canine research’s role in the development and approval of the MedMini 670G. Medtronic diabetes research director Rebecca Gottlieb, PhD, responded that VA canine research “was not specifically used in the development of the MiniMed 670G system.”
Now, even if VA canine research was used at some point in development of the MiniMed 670G artificial pancreas, that would not answer whether disabled veterans specifically “need” VA dog research, or as Shulkin claimed, that the device “will make real differences in veterans’ lives.”
Fact check: It won’t.
The Medtronic invention will help people with type-1 diabetes. This form of diabetes is generally diagnosed in childhood when the patient’s body does not produce insulin.
Do you know how many Americans can enlist into any branch of the military with a diagnosis of type-1 diabetes?
Zero. Generally, no American can enlist into the military with this diagnosis.
Even in the rare event that a disabled veteran somehow develops the disease later in life, the odds of VA health care using the newly developed MedMini seems slim to none.
When asked for specific examples of veterans benefiting from the invention, the VA press secretary could not provide a number. Medtronic likewise was unable to answer whether a single veteran made use of the implant to date or if it plans to sell the devices to VA.
Remember, by law, VA research should focus on spinal cord injuries or “research into injuries and illnesses particularly related to service.” Let foreign-based multinational corporations like Medtronic conduct their own canine research in their own private labs, perhaps in Ireland, if it’s so valuable to them.
But let’s stop pretending this dog research is being done to specifically help disabled veterans. Congress must audit VA canine research to evaluate whether the agency has any business spending taxpayer dollars this way.
Benjamin Krause is a veterans rights attorney and investigative journalist. He is chief editor of the VA watchdog website DisabledVeterans.org, where he regularly publishes news and veterans benefits tips. Benjamin is a disabled veteran of the U.S. Air Force. You can find him on Twitter at: @BenjaminKrause.