January 11, 2008 – Veterans’ advocates can proceed with a lawsuit claiming that the federal government’s health care system for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan illegally denies care and benefits, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled Thursday.
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.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Melissa Kasnitz of Disability Rights Advocates, said the judge had rejected the VA’s “shameful effort to keep these deserving veterans from their day in court.”
The next step is a hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction that would require the federal agency to provide immediate mental health treatment for veterans who suffer from stress disorders and are at risk of suicide, said Sidney Wolinsky, another Disability Rights Advocates lawyer. That hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22.
The suit claims that the federal government’s failure to provide timely treatment is contributing to an epidemic of suicides among returning soldiers.
The suit was filed in July by two organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, as a proposed class action on behalf of 320,000 to 800,000 veterans or their survivors.
The groups said the VA arbitrarily denies care and benefits to wounded veterans, forces them to wait months for treatment and years for benefits, and gives them little recourse when it rejects their medical claims. The department has a backlog of more than 600,000 disability claims, the suit said.
A Pentagon study group reported in June that the system was understaffed, prompting the VA to announce staffing increases in July. The study group also found that 84,000 veterans, more than one-third of those who sought care from the department from 2002 through 2006, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress or another mental disorder.
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.
Efforts to reach the Justice Department were unsuccessful.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.