Suit Over Veterans’ Benefits Begins in San Francisco Court
Arguments began on Monday 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 New York Times reports.
The lawsuit was filed by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth in a federal court in San Francisco (MacFarquhar, New York Times, 4/22).
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 (Rosenblatt, Bloomberg/Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/22).
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 (Chong, Los Angles Times, 4/22).
Daniel Bensing of the Department of Justice said that VA has been providing care for mental health and that its budget for such conditions was increased from $3.2 billion to $3.5 billion last year. In addition, VA added 3,700 mental health professionals and began a suicide hotline for veterans, he said (Bloomberg/Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/22).
Richard Lepley, another member of the defense team from DOJ, said that claims have increased 25% in recent years to 838,000.
The defense said that the increase is attributed to head injuries that have been a signature issue of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and Vietnam veterans who are seeking care for conditions associated with aging.
Lepley said VA is falling short of its goal to address claims within 125 days, adding that the agency is answering them closer to 180 to 185 days. However, he said the added staff and other programs should help the problem (New York Times, 4/22).
Lepley also argued that the court does not have authority to grant the veterans groups' requests because the "court does not have the standards to determine the speed or the scope or the level of that care."
U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who is presiding over the trial, said that VA is obligated to provide health care to veterans for at least five years after service, countering an argument by the defense that VA must provide only as much care as its budget allows.
Conti said that he is uncertain whether he has the authority to determine what type of care VA funds (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/22).
The hearings are scheduled to continue through May 2, and Conti will make a judgment without a jury (Bloomberg/Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/22).
The New York Times on Tuesday examined the VA suicide hotline, which aims "to reduce suicide by enabling counselors, for the first time, to instantly check a veteran's medical records and then combine emergency response with local follow-up services."
According to the New York Times, the hotline "comes after years of criticism that the department has been neglecting tens of thousands of wounded service men and women who have returned from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Cohen, New York Times, 4/22).
CBS' " Evening News" on Monday reported on the lawsuit. The segment includes comments from Gordon Erspamer, a veterans' rights attorney; Ira Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health at the VA; Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense; and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (Keteyian, "Evening News," CBS, 4/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.