Lyanne Melendez / KGO TV & Paul Elias / Monterey County Herald – 2008-04-21 22:38:16
Injured Vets and the VA Head to Court
Lyanne Melendez / KGO TV
SAN FRANCISCO (April 21, 2008) — One of the most important trials ever involving America’s veterans began today in San Francisco federal court. Two veterans groups are suing the government to improve the treatment of vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those suing the US Department of Veterans Affairs say are in San Francisco to prove that the system is broken, and they say is in need of repair.
In San Francisco’s federal courthouse, the treatment of veterans with mental and stress illnesses is being closely examined.
Paul Sullivan is with Veterans for Common Sense, one of the plaintiffs in this case. “We want the veterans to be encouraged to go to VA if they have any problems and we want VA to be ready, willing and able to help the vets when they show up,” said Paul Sullivan from Veterans for Common Sense.
Those suing the federal government say vets who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are discouraged because it takes so long to process a claim. Especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder also known as PTSD.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs says it takes on average 189 days to process a claim. The attorney for the Veterans’ Groups says it’s more than a year. “Most of them can’t find lawyers. They are baffled by the system; they have PTSD for God’s sake. They give up,” said attorney Gordon Erspamer.
Kerri Childress is with the Department of Veterans Affairs. She says in 2007 they processed 838,000 claims, a 25 percent increase since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.
Part of the problem is the government is also dealing with new claims from aging Vietnam vets. “We have to service connect the disability which means that somewhere either through illness or injury we have to connect it back to their service time,” said Childress.
In court on Monday, a confidential e-mail revealed that suicide prevention coordinators from the VA medical facilities are identifying 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans.
Ernesto Estrada fought in Iraq. He sought help from a private doctor. “I was doing a lot of drinking, I had a lot of survivor guilt and all of the going through your head, so I just worked and went to school and kept myself busy, but eventually that catches up to you,” said Iraq War veteran Ernesto Estrada.
The veterans groups would like a court to appoint a special master to help expedite this claim. It’s been done before when a special master was appointed to handle all of the claims related to Agent Orange back in the Vietnam War.
Agent Orange was a violent chemical, which was used in Vietnam to help clear the brush to help our troops. The case in San Francisco is expected to last for at least two weeks.
If these kids do not get the help they need, once again many will become just another Veteran statistic on; Homelessness, jail, our court system, domestic dysfunction, urine drug testing, probation, suicide or many medical absences from employment and unlike erectile dysfunction the list keeps longer… just like it has been for decades now. . . And The Drug Cocktail combination the VA is handing these veterans is criminal.
Abraham Lincoln said a grateful nation owed the veterans and their families a great debit of gratitude and that the nation would not forget. The Civil War Vet and the WWII vet were well cared for. Not true the WWI or Vietnam vets. Now the Afghan & Iraqi vets are seen as an economic liability by the Bush Administration. The V.A. has been a major embarrassment for this country for over 48 years. The same number of ‘back log’ appeals exist today as did in 1971 when I was discharged.
Veterans Accuse Government of
Mishandling Medical Care
Paul Elias / Monterey County Herald
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Apr 21, 2008) — The U.S. 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, according to a class-action lawsuit that goes to trial this week.
The lawsuit, filed in July by two nonprofit groups [Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth] representing military veterans, accuses the agency of inadequately addressing a “rising tide” of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.
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 is set to begin Monday 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.
“That failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides,” the veterans groups wrote in court papers filed Thursday.
A study released this week by the RAND Corp. estimates that 300,000 U.S. troops—about 20 percent 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.
The groups are asking U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, to order the VA to drastically overhaul its system. Conti is hearing the trial without a jury.
“What I would like to see from the VA is that they actually treat patients with respect,” said Bob Handy, head of the Veterans United for Truth, one of the groups suing the agency.
Handy, 76, who retired from the Navy in 1970, said he founded the veterans group in 2004 after hearing myriad complaints from veterans about their treatment at the VA when he was a member of the Veterans Caucus of the state Democratic Party. The department acknowledges in court papers that it takes on average about 180 days to decide whether to approve a disability claim.
“I would just like to see the VA do the honorable thing,” said Handy, who is expected to testify during the weeklong trial.
Justice Department spokeswoman Carrie Nelson declined comment Friday.
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” post-traumatic stress, the papers said.
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 said.
“The largest component of these new claims is the aging veteran population of the Vietnam and Cold War eras,” the government filing stated. “As they age, older veterans may lose employment-related health care, prompting them to seek VA benefits for the first time.”
Government lawyers in their filings defended its 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.”
The VA “has 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,” they said.
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