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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Vets' Legal Challenge to VA Health Care System Shortfalls Proceeds Forward

Latest updates on this and related VA/Army lawsuits posted in "As Second Legal Attempt Fails to Force VA Hand on Disability Claims Processing, Army Sued Over Discharged Veteran PTSD Disability Ratings." -- Ilona Meagher, 12/17/08

Good to see our veterans will get their day in court. From Time:

When veterans of America's two current wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — tried to sue the Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to process thousands of claims for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Department waved them off saying they had no right to do so. The VA said that Congress had set up an administrative — not judicial — process for evaluating individual disability claims. The veterans, it declared, just had to wait for bureaucracy to take its course — no matter that it has a backlog of 600,000 unresolved claims, each of which can take up to six months or more to process.

Now, however, a federal judge in San Francisco has cleared the way for a dramatic challenge to the constitutionality of the VA's claims system. Judge Samuel Conti of the Northern District of California ruled that the administrative system is not "adequate" for reviewing claims of organizations suing on behalf of a broad class of veterans (the class-action lawsuit was filed in July by two veterans organizations). Nor is that bureaucratic process empowered to grant the kind of relief sought by the veterans groups: systemic changes in the VA's processing of disability claims, strengthened rights of individual veterans to press their claims and immediate medical and psychological help for returning troops complaining of PTSD symptoms.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


The suit claims that the VA violates the constitutional rights of PTSD victims by denying them medical care and benefits as well as the power to hire outside attorneys and obtain records in their disability petitions. Proponents of the suit point out that the VA's immense backlog of claims leads to delays in treatment, often compounding PTSD symptoms, contributing to substance abuse and suicide.

"VA first mistreated hundreds of thousands of veterans, then took the position that the vets could not bring their grievances to court to be heard," said Melissa Kasnitz, whose non-profit law firm, Disability Rights Advocates, represents the veterans groups. "Today, VA's shameful effort to keep these deserving veterans from their day in court was rejected."

More from the San Francisco Chronicle:

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, a conservative jurist and a World War II veteran, rejected Bush administration arguments that civil courts have no authority over the Department of Veterans Affairs' medical decisions or how it handles grievances and claims.

If the plaintiffs can prove their allegations, Conti said, they would show that "thousands of veterans, if not more, are suffering grievous injuries as the result of their inability to procure desperately needed and obviously deserved health care."

He said federal courts are competent to decide whether those injuries were caused by flaws in the health care system and the VA's grievance procedures.

Conti did not rule on the adequacy of the treatment system, which will be addressed in future proceedings. But he decided one disputed issue, finding that veterans are legally entitled to two years of health care after leaving the service. The government had argued that it was required to provide only as much care as the VA's budget allowed in a given year. ...

In seeking dismissal of the suit, the Justice Department argued that Congress had barred federal courts from hearing complaints about the VA system when it established a special Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims in 1988 to review grievances over treatment and benefits. But Conti said the special court can examine only individual cases and has no power to consider "systematic, constitutional challenges." He said those belong in regular courts.

Conti also said the VA system, originally intended as an informal procedure to help veterans resolve their claims, has morphed into an adversarial process in which claimants have to comply with formal legal rules, often without a lawyer.

"It is within the court's power to insist that veterans be granted a level of due process that is commensurate with the adjudication procedures with which they are confronted," Conti said.

Details from Disability Rights Advocates:

January 10, 2008: A federal court in San Francisco today cleared the way for a major national class action lawsuit on behalf of disabled veterans to directly challenge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The ruling affirms the rights of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to sue in federal court over the huge backlog of claims, the lengthy waiting time that veterans face in receiving needed mental health care, and the inadequacy of care for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The complaint, filed in the United States District Court in July, seeks a judicial finding that VA’s system of handling claims and appeals is so dysfunctional that it violates veterans’ constitutional and statutory rights. The suit also calls for court orders requiring VA to provide immediate medical and psychological help to returning troops and to screen them for risk of suicide.

Read the Press Release [MS Word file]
Read the Order [pdf]
Read more about the Case

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