Frustrated by delays in health care, a coalition of injured Iraq war veterans is accusing VA Secretary Jim Nicholson of breaking the law by denying them disability pay and mental health treatment. ... The class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, filed Monday in federal court in San Francisco, seeks broad change in the agency as it struggles to meet growing demands from veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Suing on behalf of hundreds of thousands of veterans, it charges that the VA has failed warriors on several fronts -- from providing prompt disability benefits, to adding staff to reduce wait times for medical care to boosting services for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawsuit also accuses the VA of deliberately cheating some veterans by allegedly working with the Pentagon to misclassify PTSD claims as pre-existing personality disorders to avoid paying out benefits. The VA and Pentagon have generally denied such charges.
From the Los Angeles Times:
[A]ttorneys for the plaintiffs say the VA is "structurally unsuitable" for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, which the lawsuit [pdf] calls "a signature problem of veterans" of the current ongoing wars. ... About 1.6 million men and women have served in the two countries. 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 PTSD to brain injuries.
Only 27 of the VA's 1,400 hospitals around the country have inpatient PTSD programs, the plaintiffs' 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.
From NBC-11 [San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland]:
The proposed class includes all veterans with stress disorder, stretching back to those from the Vietnam War, as well as those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the groups' attorneys, Sid Wolinksy of Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates, said, "This lawsuit is the first class action lawsuit to directly challenge the VA's unconscionable backlog of claims and the endless waiting time disabled veterans face in receiving appropriate mental health care from the VA." ...
"Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, the VA has betrayed our veterans," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, based in Washington D.C. "Instead of hiring more doctors and claims processors, the VA instituted new policies that block veterans' access to prompt mental health care.
"While we are reluctant to file suit against the VA, it is the VA's anti-veteran policies that leave us no other option than to fight for what our veterans earned after fighting on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan," Sullivan said.
Eight officials are named in the lawsuit:
- R. JAMES NICHOLSON, Secretary of Department of Veterans Affairs; UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
- JAMES P. TERRY, Chairman, Board of Veterans Appeals
- DANIEL L. COOPER, Under Secretary, Veterans Benefits Administration
- BRADLEY G. MAYES, Director, Compensation and Pension Service
- DR. MICHAEL J. KUSSMAN, Under Secretary, Veterans Health Administration
- PRITZ K. NAVARA, Veterans Service Center Manager, Oakland Regional Office, Department of Veterans Affairs; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
- ALBERTO GONZALES, Attorney General of the United States
- WILLIAM P. GREENE, JR., Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
Of the lawsuit, Melissa Kasnitz, managing attorney of DRA says:
This class action does not seek money damages, nor does it address the claims of any individual veteran. It seeks systemic relief for the flawed system of providing heath care and benefits to veterans. Currently, there is a backlog of over 600,000 cases in the veterans benefit system, and veterans with PTSD are not able to promptly get treatment for mental health problems, despite a statute that requires free healthcare for two years after service. We are asking to the courts to order VA to fix these problems.
Continuing from AP:
[G]overnment investigators warned as early as 2002 that the VA needed to fix its backlogged claims system and make other changes. Yet, the lawsuit says, Nicholson and other officials still insisted on a budget in 2005 that fell $1 billion short, and they made "a mockery of the rule of law" by awarding senior officials $3.8 million in bonuses despite their role in the budget foul-up.
Today, the VA's backlog of disability payments is now between 400,000 and 600,000, with delays of up to 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal. ...
The lawsuit cites violations of the Constitution and federal law, which mandates at least two years of health care to injured veterans. The veterans groups involved in the lawsuit are Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., which claims 11,500 members, and Veterans United for Truth, based in Santa Barbara, California, with 500 members.
If you are a veteran and wish to add your name to the lawsuit:
Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is interested in hearing from veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. We are investigating the experiences of these veterans as they seek benefits through the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
We are seeking information on how the existing system serves veterans, including whether or not they are satisfied with the speed that their claims are addressed and the outcomes. We also are interested in hearing from veterans about the quality of care they receive at VA facilities.
We encourage any Iraq or Afghani veterans with PTSD who are interested in sharing their experiences to contact us. You can call, write, or email us at: Disability Rights Advocates, 2001 Center Street, Fourth Floor, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510) 665-8644; email@example.com. Collect calls will be accepted.
All information will be kept confidential.
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