Federal Judge in San Francisco Dismisses Suit Over Veterans’ Care
U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs' health care system, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/26).
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 war veterans.
The lawsuit did not seek damages but instead asked the court to force VA to improve care for veterans, especially those with PTSD and other mental health issues (California Healthline, 5/1).
In his ruling, Conti agreed with the veterans' groups claims that:
- There is a high veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder rate;
- VA is understaffed; and
- There are long waiting periods for hearing veterans' appeals of benefit denials.
However, he noted that a majority of veterans are being seen within 30 days (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/26). He added that although the delays were "significant," they did not violate a veteran's right to due process because there was no consensus on what "timely" processing would be (Chong, Los Angeles Times, 6/26).
According to Conti, while federal law entitles veterans to five years of VA care after they are discharged, "it is beyond the power of this court to determine when and how such care shall be provided."
Conti wrote that the groups failed to show a "systemwide crisis" in mental health care that would justify the courts intervening in the VA's delivery of care. He said, "The remedies sought by plaintiffs are beyond the power of this court and would call for a complete overhaul of the VA system," adding, "Congress has specifically precluded district courts from reviewing veterans' benefits decisions and has entrusted decisions regarding veterans' medical care to the discretion of the VA secretary" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/26).
Conti added that the lawsuit was "misdirected" and that the veterans should seek changes from Congress, the VA secretary and the federal court in Washington, D.C.
Phil Budahn, a spokesperson for VA, said the agency was "pleased" with the ruling. Gordon Erspamer, a lawyer for the veterans groups, said he plans to appeal the decision (AP/New York Times, 6/26). He said, "If the judge is correct, the VA can do whatever it wants, and all the rights (of veterans) are unenforceable," adding, "That just can't be the law. There's got to be a remedy somewhere for the poor slobs who are fighting for our country."
Paul Sullivan, executive director of VCS, said Conti "confirmed many of our allegations" and issued "a huge alarm bell for Congress and the VA to take action now" (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/26). He added, "We consider this a very loud and bright warning shot over the bow for VA and Congress to fix the VA now because the judge actually agreed with many of the allegations in our lawsuit" (Los Angeles Times, 6/26).