On December 1, the US Department of Justice confirmed that for years a handful of VA staffers had twisted science into a policy goal. That twisted goal: denial of valid Agent Orange exposure claims from C-123 veterans.
Please try to follow this. It is how VA refused years of medical care and other vital benefits to thousands of veterans who flew or maintained the former C-123 Agent Orange spray airplanes.
In 2012, faced with Agent Orange exposure claims from C-123 veterans, VA's Veterans Health Administration Post Deployment Health Section simply invented their own unique VA-only redefinition of "exposure" to prevent all such claims. The proper standard definition of exposure (Dorlands Illustrated Medical Dictionary, VA's standard reference) confirmed the veterans' claims, so VA twisted that word into phony science, meant only to further VA policy, not justice or good medical care.
All they had to do was bury a simple deceptive and scientifically-flawed sentence into a poster presentation VA gave at the 2012 Society of Toxicology conference in San Francisco:
"Exposure = contamination field + bioavailability."
|VA poster redefinition of "exposure"|
|Other government agencies deny any bioavailability requirement for|
exposure to occur; NIH labeled VA definition "unscientific"
In their terminology slight of hand, VA said that exposure couldn't exist without a contaminate plus proven bioavailability of that contaminante. No proof of bioavailability, however impossible to actually prove, was to mean no exposure...at least to the VA. Burn pits, immunizations, dirty water, biohazards, toxins...all the things a veteran might encounter via inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact, VA would refuse to concede exposure unless the impossible was done...a vet had to prove the bioavailability of the contamination.
Not only did this piece of VA newspeak conflict with Dorlands Illustrated Medical Dictionary, but also with other VA and government with VA's own standard source for scientific and medical terms. Other VA agencies used the proper definition of exposure, but not VHA's Post Deployment.
Other government agencies and other VA departments simply use the proper definitions published by the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, where "exposure = Contact with a substance by swallowing, breathing, or touching the skin or eyes." That's the CDC definition, the EPA definition, the NIH definition.
So back to the Department of Justice report on VA and its reinvention of "exposure" back in 2012.
In 2013, C-123 veterans filed suit against the VA in the US District Court of Washington, demanding the background for VA's "exposure" redefinition and the basis on which VA's Society of Toxicology poster came to be. This week, DOJ finally revealed:
Dr. XXXX did not create the poster based on existing documents, but upon her experience assessing that and other exposure scenarios. The statement "exposure = concentration present + bioavailability" did not previously exist in any documents of which she is aware.So the redefinition, published over the names of Dr. Terra Irons, Dr. Wendy Dick, Dr. Terry Walters and Dr. Michael Peterson (all of VHA Public Health) was simply made up. Never existed before, and created for this poster to then be used to block C-123 veterans' claims.
And that's exactly how it was used. In February 2013, C-123 vets met with Mr. Thomas Murphy, Director of VA's Compensation and Pension Service. Besides telling the veterans no amount of proof would be acceptable to establish their exposure claims, he explained that Dr. Terry Walters had already concluded no C-123 veteran's Agent Orange exposure was to be permitted based on her own redefinition of exposure.
Invited by Mr. Murphy to discuss the issue with Dr. Walters, we found her redefinition just as we'd been told, with the additional point she made that few, if any, Vietnam veterans were ever exposed to Agent Orange based on her new definition of exposure. And it was a definition of exposure contrary to every other federal agency, including the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences as well as other VA departments.
But we have to ask: how did a PhD one year out of grad school at Carolina opt to redefine a fundamental term in toxicology, just so OPH could deny exposure claims? And again, the Department of Justice simply reported to us that she did it, pretty much by herself, calling on her specialty of mollusk toxicology to provide enough scientific wherewithal to refuse medical care to thousands of Agent Orange exposed veterans.
And on that weak, policy-driven basis, VA continued to order C-123 veterans' Agent Orange exposure claims denied until June 2015. That date was the publication of the Secretary's Interim Final Rule, recognizing the Institute of Medicine finding that C-123 vets had indeed been exposed. And exposed in the true scientific meaning of that word!