Delays in disabled pay, health care prompt suitArmy Times
By Hope Yen - The Associated Press
Posted : Tuesday Jul 24, 2007 5:21:55 EDT
WASHINGTON — Frustrated by delays in health care, a coalition of injured Iraq war veterans is accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of breaking the law by denying them disability pay and mental health treatment.
The class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in San Francisco, seeks broad changes 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 servicemen and women on numerous fronts. It contends the VA failed to provide prompt disability benefits, failed to add staff to reduce wait times for medical care and failed to boost 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 benefits. The VA and Pentagon have generally denied such charges.
"When one of our combat veterans walks into a VA hospital, then they must see a doctor that day," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed the lawsuit. "When a war veteran needs disability benefits because he or she can't work, then they must get a disability check in a few weeks."
"The VA has betrayed our veterans," Sullivan said.
Virginia spokesman Matt Smith said Monday he could not comment on a pending lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the VA and Pentagon following reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.
The complaint seeks to represent between 320,000 and 800,000 veterans of the Iraq war who lawyers say are at risk of having PTSD. Ultimately, a federal judge will have to decide whether the lawsuit is properly deemed a class action that adequately represents them.
As of March 31, roughly 52,375 Iraq veterans were evaluated at VA facilities for suspected PTSD, according to an internal quarterly VA report released Monday to The Associated Press.
"Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system," the complaint says.
It asks that a federal court order the VA to make immediate improvements.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in San Francisco issued a strong rebuke of the VA in ordering the agency to pay retroactive benefits to Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange and contracted a form of leukemia.
"The performance of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has contributed substantially to our sense of national shame," the opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals read.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiff veterans note that government investigators warned as early as 2002 that the VA needed to fix its backlogged claims system and make other changes.
Yet, the lawsuit says, the department 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 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.