From one of the Los Angeles Times' best reporters.
VA failing Mideast vets, lawsuit contends
returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not getting proper medical and
mental health care, the suit says, citing post-traumatic stress
disorder as a particular problem.
By Henry Weinstein
Times Staff Writer
July 24, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was accused in
a major lawsuit Monday of "shameful failures" in providing medical and
mental healthcare to injured servicemen and women returning from the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 73-page suit, filed in federal court here on behalf of hundreds of
thousands of veterans, is the first of its kind and seeks to
dramatically transform the way the VA operates.
The suit targets
what it describes as the agency's "unconscionable" backlog of 600,000
claims, the adequacy of its services and the long waits to receive
mental health care, particularly for post-traumatic stress disorder,
which is described as the "signature problem" of vets returning from
the current fighting.
A recent report by a special Pentagon
task force found that 38% of soldiers and 50% of National Guard members
coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan have mental health issues, ranging
from stress disorder to brain injuries. But only 27 of the VA's 1,400
hospitals around the country have in-patient post-traumatic stress
disorder programs, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are being
deprived of mental health services in the early phases of the illness,
when identification and treatment are critical, the suit alleges. Left
untreated, severe PTSD can lead to substance abuse, depression and
suicide, the lawyers said.
"A number of veterans have committed
suicide shortly after having been turned away from VA facilities either
because they were told they were ineligible or because the wait was too
long," the lawsuit states.
In response to the suit, the VA
issued a formal statement, saying it "is committed to meeting the
special needs of our latest generation of heroes, and it would be
inappropriate to comment directly upon a potential or pending lawsuit."
outreach efforts, the VA ensures returning Global War on Terror service
members have access to the widely recognized quality healthcare they
have earned, including services such as prosthetics or mental health
care. VA has also given priority handling to their monetary disability
Attorney Gordon P. Erspamer, one of the lead
lawyers for the plaintiffs, said at a news conference that the lawsuit,
which seeks class-action status, is an attempt to establish a basic set
of "civil rights" for veterans.
"This isn't a case about
isolated problems or the type of normal delays and administrative
hassles we all occasionally experience with bureaucracies," said
Erspamer, of San Francisco's Morrison & Foerster, which has taken
the case pro bono. "This case is founded on the virtual meltdown of the
VA's capacity to care for men and women who served their country
bravely and honorably, were severely injured and are now being treated
like second-class citizens."
"This is the first class-action
lawsuit to directly challenge" the adequacy of care for post-traumatic
stress disorder and "the VA's unconscionable backlog of claims," added
attorney Sid Wolinsky of Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit
advocacy group that also is representing the plaintiffs.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, the suit says, include
intense anxiety, persistent nightmares, depression, uncontrollable
anger and difficulties coping with work, family and social
Veterans suffering from PTSD and other
psychiatric problems are less able to handle battles with the VA
bureaucracy than other vets, according to retired Marine Col. James
Cook, who spoke at the news conference. He brandished a 23-page
standard form that veterans must fill out to seek help.
VA's outmoded systems for providing medical care and disability
benefits" have been overwhelmed by "the huge influx of injured troops
returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," the suit states. About 1.6
million men and women have served in the two countries since the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The VA had significant problems
even before the two current wars were launched, but its current backlog
has become an "insurmountable barrier" that has made a mockery of the
VA's mandate, said attorney Melissa Kasnitz, of Disability Rights
"The VA's motto, taken from Abraham Lincoln's second
inaugural address is, 'To care for him who shall have borne the battle
and for his widow and orphan.' The VA is not living up to its motto or
its obligation to care for our disabled veterans," she said.
The named plaintiffs are two veterans' advocacy groups, Veterans for
Common Sense, based in Washington, D.C., and Veterans United for Truth,
based in Santa Barbara. The case was not filed on behalf of individuals
because "veterans fear retaliation," Erspamer said.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said
that individual veterans would be speaking out in the future. "Since
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, the VA has betrayed our veterans,"
said Sullivan, who served in the Army during the first Gulf War and
worked as a project manager for the VA from 2000 to 2006, monitoring
the disability claims of veterans from the Gulf War and the recent wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Instead of hiring more doctors and
claims processors," as he recommended, Sullivan said, "the VA
instituted new policies that block veterans' access to prompt mental
Sullivan is scheduled to testify Thursday at a
hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which will be
considering a recently issued report by the Institute of Medicine
examining how the VA handles treatment and compensation claims for PTSD.
The defendants in the lawsuit include R. James Nicholson, outgoing VA
chief, several other ranking VA officials and Atty. Gen. Alberto R.
Gonzales. A spokesman for the Justice Department said the agency would
have no immediate comment because its lawyers were just beginning to
review the suit.
The plaintiffs' lawyers emphasized that they
were not seeking monetary damages. Rather, they said the suit was
designed to stop repeated violations of federal laws that guarantee
healthcare for returning veterans.
The plaintiffs' lawyers
assert that the VA's claims-processing and appeal procedures for denied
claims violate the veterans' constitutional rights to due process under
the 5th Amendment and their right to petition for redress, guaranteed
by the 1st Amendment.
Erspamer said the VA had created perverse
incentives to deny claims by awarding employees bonuses based on the
number of claims processed. Rather than considering veterans' claims
carefully, he said it was much easier and faster to deny a claim,
particularly a complicated one, than to grant it.
suit contends that the VA "has consistently presented misleading
statistics" understating the length of time it takes to decide a claim,
the number of veterans who need mental health services and the amount
of money the agency needs to meet its obligations to veterans.
said the two recent wars have generated more than 220,000 disability
claims. The lawsuit also alleges that government officials have
improperly persuaded many soldiers suffering from PTSD to accept
"personality disorder" discharges by telling them they will get help
faster. In fact, the suit states, agreeing to that bars veterans from
obtaining disability benefits and from receiving ongoing medical
treatment because the "disorder" is characterized as a "pre-existing
Unless "systemic and drastic measures are
instituted immediately, the costs to the veterans, their families and
our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new
generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug
abuse, increases in alcoholism and crushing burdens on the health care
delivery system and other social services in our communities," the suit
The attorneys said that although they were hoping for
help from the federal court, congressional action also was needed to
increase funding and other resources for the VA.
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