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Veterans' rights groups sue VA, seeking better care for injured troops
'What's required is complete overhaul of broken system'

Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Two veterans' rights groups filed suit Monday in San Francisco seeking to force the federal government to make major changes in how it cares for hundreds of thousands of injured veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The plaintiffs say the Department of Veterans Affairs has violated the rights of returning veterans by delaying or denying their efforts to seek treatment for combat-related disabilities -- especially veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"This is not just a lawsuit. It's really a call to action," said Sidney Wolinsky, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, which helped prepare the lawsuit. "What's required here is a complete overhaul of a broken system."

The lawsuit was filed by two nonprofit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., group with 11,500 members, and Veterans United for Truth, a 500-member organization in Santa Barbara.

The suit has no named individual plaintiffs, which the attorneys said was largely due to veterans' fear of retribution by the VA. The lawsuit seeks class standing to represent all veterans applying for or receiving compensation for service-connected death or disability.

"The lawsuit focuses on the VA's handling -- or should I say mishandling -- of PTSD disability claims and their repeated failures to provide medical care to returning veterans as required by federal statute," said Gordon Erspamer of Morrison & Foerster, another law firm working on the suit. Plaintiffs' attorneys estimate the class could include between 320,000 and 800,000 veterans.

The VA did not comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. Veterans, the Defense Department and members of Congress from both parties have previously questioned the VA's ability to handle its caseload.

A June 2007 report by a Pentagon task force on mental health, which reviewed health care for active-duty military personnel and those served by the VA, found that the system was understaffed. The task force reported that 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological symptoms within four months of ending deployment, a number that rises to 49 percent among returning members of the National Guard.

Those percentages turn into huge numbers at a time when some 1.6 million men and women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of 229,015 veterans who sought care from 2002 to the end of 2006, 83,889 were diagnosed with a mental disorder, including PTSD, drug abuse or depression.

On July 16, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson announced changes in the way the VA handles mental health, including adding psychologists and social workers and increasing the number of drop-in treatment centers to 232 from 209.

"As the newest generation of combat veterans returns home, we want to ensure that we are providing them the very best in mental health care and treatment possible. They deserve nothing less," Nicholson said.

The lawsuit filed Monday asserts that veterans in fact are receiving far less than the best treatment possible.

The plaintiffs charge that the VA system is constructed in a way that encourages delay or rejection of veterans' claims, and excessively limits veterans' ability to challenge those rejections. One result, the suit says, is that the VA has a backlog of disability claims that exceeds 600,000.

The lawsuit seeks court action forcing the VA to grant service members returning from combat immediate medical and psychological help, to screen all returning veterans for risk of PTSD or suicide, and to overhaul and expedite the way it processes claims and appeals.

"If the veteran needs to see a doctor for a problem related to the war, they should see one right away," said Paul Sullivan, executive director for Veterans for Common Sense, who served in the Army in the first Gulf War and is a former VA analyst. "No waiting. No long lines. No bureaucratic hassles."

Such changes could cost billions of dollars, the plaintiffs said, and some reforms the organizations want to see would require legislative action. The veterans deserve both, Sullivan said.

"Given the lessons of the Vietnam War, it's imperative that this issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides be followed very closely by the government," he said. "We can rely on the court of public opinion. ... We can also rely on the courts to order the Department of Veterans Affairs to do their job."
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