Federal watchdog initiates investigation into VA dog testing
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 7, 2019
WASHINGTON — The controversy surrounding the continued use of dogs in medical experiments at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities heated up again this week when the agency’s inspector general announced it would initiate an investigation into the practice.
Five House members urged the VA Inspector General in December to find how many VA studies continued to use dogs following the approval of a new law last year that sought to prevent them.
Congress passed legislation in March 2018 to prohibit the use of dogs in VA research unless the objectives of a medical study could be met only by using them. Even in that instance, the new law states the study must be directly approved by the VA secretary.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has claimed former Secretary David Shulkin approved nine ongoing studies using dogs before he was fired last year. Shulkin, though, has asserted he didn’t.
“The inconsistencies between the accounts of former Secretary Shulkin and Secretary Wilkie regarding this approval underscore the VA’s persistent lack of transparency and accountability in its use of this cruel practice,” the five lawmakers wrote to the IG in December.
On Wednesday, VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote back, informing the lawmakers that he had initiated an investigation.
“I’m glad the that the inspector general has agreed to take a close look at the use of dog testing at the VA,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this investigation will shine a light on the dubious explanations that VA leadership has provided for how these cruel experiments were allowed to move forward in possible violation of federal law.”
The other lawmakers who requested the investigation were Reps. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Brian Mast, R-Fla., Dave Brat, R-Va., and Vern Buchanan, R-Fla. They led the way last year on efforts to restrict dog testing at the VA, arguing it was cruel and an incorrect use of taxpayer money.
The new law was approved March 22. Days later, on March 28, President Donald Trump fired then-Secretary Shulkin. In response to recent questioning about the continued use of dogs in nine medical studies, Wilkie said Shulkin approved the research to continue on the day that he was fired.
VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour elaborated, saying Shulkin granted approval on March 28 in an early afternoon meeting attended by four senior VA executives. Cashour said the VA welcomed inspector general oversight on the issue.
Shulkin has denied giving the go-ahead. In a tweet, he wrote he remained opposed to new dog research at the VA.
In a public address in November, Wilkie defended the continued use of dogs in research, arguing it was necessary for medical breakthroughs that could help veterans.
“I’m going to do everything that is ethical to make sure that our veterans come first,” Wilkie said at the time. “I love canines, I was raised with them. I’ve seen them in my military life perform miracles. But we have an opportunity to change the lives of men and women who have been terribly hurt.”
The ongoing studies using dogs are located in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Richmond, among other locations, according to information provided by Titus’ office.
USA Today previously reported the medical study in Cleveland involves severing dogs’ spinal cords and testing their cough reflexes.