Case on Veterans’ Mental Health Care Closes in San Francisco Federal Court
Attorneys presented closing arguments on Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs that alleges the agency is unequipped to provide medical services to treat the mental health problems of soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Elias, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/30).
The lawsuit was filed by the Veterans for Common Sense and the Veterans United for Truth in a federal court in San Francisco.
Lawyers for the two veterans groups said that staff shortages, long waits, inadequate care and an adversarial appeals process for denied care have created an "epidemic of suicides" among veterans. The lawsuit also says that VA is ignoring or delaying treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder for as many as 750,000 veterans of the wars.
The lawsuit does not seek damages but instead wants the court to force VA to improve care for veterans, especially those with PTSD and other mental health issues (California Healthline, 4/22).
As the trial concluded, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti continued to question the amount of power he had in ordering changes to VA. He said, "One of the problems I have in this case is this court is restricted by various statutes, binding regulations and case law" (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/30).
Both sides argued in closing statements over "whether veterans with mental health problems are neglected or whether their sheer numbers are overwhelming the system," the New York Times reports (MacFarquhar, New York Times, 5/1).
According to plaintiff attorney Arturo Gonzalez, Conti does have the power to order VA to change because its "system has crashed and it has been overwhelmed" by an increasing number of claims (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/30). He added that VA has not implemented an action plan to treat veterans with mental health issues that the department devised four years ago.
Gonzalez said that the more than 180-day wait time for claims to be processed is evidence of a "pattern of neglect" (New York Times, 5/1).
Daniel Bensing, a Justice Department attorney who is defending the VA, said the groups should be taking up their complaints with Congress and not in the courts (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/30).
Bensing said that in 2007, there was a 25% increase in the number of claims filed, in part due to an increase in claims from aging Vietnam War veterans. Other problems he cited were the link between service members' military and medical records; a claims process that allows veterans to add in new information at any time and budgetary restrictions.
Although the high suicide rate among veterans is a serious concern, it takes time to change the largest health care system in the U.S., Bensing said. He added, "It cannot all be done immediately like plaintiffs seem to think" (New York Times, 5/1).
Both sides have been ordered by Conti to file post-trial legal papers by May 19. Conti said he will make his ruling after reviewing the documents (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/30).
According to the Times, Conti is expected to issue a ruling in June (New York Times, 5/1).