Tough Questions for VA on Suicide-Linked Chantix

The Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs will appear before Congress tomorrow to answer questions about why his administration continued to recruit veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan for studies of pharmaceutical drugs linked to suicide and other violent side-effects. The controversial tests were the subject of an ABC News/ Washington Times investigation last month.

In one of the human experiments involving the anti-smoking drug Chantix, VA doctors waited more than three months after a statement was issued by the Food and Drug Administration before warning veterans about the possible serious side-effects, including suicide and neuropsychiatric behavior.

In the meantime, a new report out in today's Washington Times says that doctors at the VA began raising red flags as early as last year about Chantix, prompting a quiet investigation last fall.

VA Secretary James Peake said following the initial ABC News/ Washington Times report that letters would be sent to 32,000 veterans informing them that they are using a drug linked to suicide or violent behavior. Peake has said he "wished" the VA had not taken so long to warn veterans being used in the Chantix test.

Chantix has been linked to at least 40 suicides and 400 attempted suicides in the population at large, according to the FDA which published its first alert about the potential dangers of the drug on Nov. 20, 2007.

The FDA issued a second warning, and there was an alert from the drug's maker, Pfizer, before the VA finally began to warn veterans in the study on Feb. 29, 2008.

But even then, the VA omitted the word "suicide" from the cover letter sent to veterans.

Secretary Peake said the new VA warning letter he is sending will specify that suicide is one of the possible side-effects of Chantix.

One of the veterans who was featured on Good Morning America (click here to watch the report) will also appear before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs tomorrow. James Elliott of suburban Washington suffered a mental breakdown and near-lethal confrontation with police which he blames on Chantix.

VA doctors say there is no evidence Chantix was responsible.

Elliott's incident with the police occurred in February, after the VA knew of possible risks, but before it had notified veterans.

Elliott said that the failure of the VA to inform him of Chantix's possible side effects made him feel like "a guinea pig, lab rat, disposable hero."

"It hurts me to have anyone think we would treat our veterans as lab rats," Peake responded.

Pfizer has maintained that the drug's benefits outweigh the risks and that it continues to do further studies on the drug. A representative from Pfizer will also be testifying before the committee tomorrow.

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