RAO Davao City

United States Military Retiree Activities Office Davao City, Philippines

VA LAWSUIT (LACK OF CARE) UPDATE 1 – May 1 2008

Posted by Service Officer on April 30th, 2008

THE lawsuit, filed in JUL 07 by two nonprofit groups representing military veterans, accuses the agency of inadequately addressing a “rising tide” of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder. It contends the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing enough to prevent suicide and provide adequate medical care for Americans who have served in the armed forces, a class-action lawsuit that goes to trial this week charges. But government lawyers say the VA has been devoting more resources to mental health and making suicide prevention a top priority. They also argue that the courts don’t have the authority to tell the department how it should operate. The trial began 21 APR in a San Francisco federal court. An average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day, and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide, according to a December e-mail between top VA officials that was filed as part of the federal lawsuit. The veterans groups wrote in court papers filed 17 APR that failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides. The "trial…does not seek monetary damages but asks the court to appoint a special master or otherwise intervene to make" the VA run more efficiently.

After government lawyers and attorneys representing the veterans made opening statements the executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, testified that U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have sufficient access to lawyers to help them process health and medical claims when they encounter treatment delays or mistakes a witness for the veterans testified. "Even if we get 1,000 cases placed, there are hundreds of thousands of claims," Abrams said. Veterans suffering disorders cannot get enough legal aid even though hundreds of lawyers from dozens of law firms have volunteered to help them free of charge, Abrams said. Staff shortages, inadequate care, long waits for therapy, and an adversarial appeals process when care is denied have led to an "epidemic of suicides," lawyers for Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth Inc. have argued. Coincidently the next day U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called for the resignation of Dr. Ira Katz, Mental Health Officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, following reports that Dr. Katz was involved in efforts to cover up the number of veterans attempting suicide.

A study released this week by the RAND Corp. estimates that 300,000 U.S. troops (about 20% of those deployed ) are suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We find that the VA has simply not devoted enough resources,” said Gordon Erspamer, the lawyer representing the veterans groups. “They don’t have enough psychiatrists.” The lawsuit also alleges that the VA takes too long to pay disability claims and that its internal appellate process unconstitutionally denies veterans their right to take their complaints to court. According to Erspamer the VA can take up to 12 to 15 years before it recognizes and compensates a veteran for stress disorder and that when veterans appeal their claims, the courts reverse or send the cases back to VA offices for correction 91% of the time.The department acknowledges in court papers that it takes on average about 180 days to decide whether to approve a disability claim. The groups are asking U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, a World War II Army veteran, to order the VA to drastically overhaul its system. Conti is hearing the trial without a jury. But government lawyers have filed court papers arguing that the courts have no authority to tell the VA how to operate and no business wading into the everyday management of a sprawling medical network that includes 153 medical centers nationwide. The veterans are asking the judge “to administer the programs of the second largest Cabinet-level agency, a task for which Congress and the executive branch are better suited,” government lawyers wrote in court papers.

If the judge ordered an overhaul, he would be responsible for such things as employees workloads, hours of operations, facility locations, the number of medical professionals employed, and “even the decision whether to offer individual or group therapy to patients with PTSD. The VA also said it is besieged with an unprecedented number of claims, which have grown from 675,000 in 2001 to 838,000 in 2007. The rise is prompted not from the current war, but from veterans growing older. Government lawyers in their filings defended VA’s average claims processing time as reasonable, given that it has to prove the veterans disability was incurred during service time. They also noted the VA will spend $3.8 billion for fiscal year 2008 on mental health and announced a policy in June that requires all medical centers to have mental health staff available all the time to provide urgent care. They said that “suicide prevention is a singular priority for the VA. They have hired over 3,700 new mental health professionals in the last two and a half years, bringing the total number of mental health professionals within VA to just under 17,000. This hiring effort continues. [Source: Air Force Times AP Paul Elias article posted : 21 Apr 08 ++]

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