February 5, 2008 – The Bush administration on Wednesday filed arguments in a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of San Francisco stating that veterans have no legal right to specific types of medical care, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The arguments were filed in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by veterans who claim they were illegally denied mental health treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/5).
Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth filed the suit in July 2007, alleging that VA is responsible for a “systemwide pattern of abusive and illegal administrative practices.” The lawsuit claims VA failed to deliver the mandatory two years of disability benefits for veterans, failed to address staff problems that led to long wait times for care and provided insufficient care for post-traumatic stress disorder. The lawsuit also claims VA deliberately reclassified PTSD claims as pre-existing disorders as a way to avoid paying out benefits.
In January, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti rejected the government’s attempt to have the case dismissed, ruling that federal law entitles veterans to health care for a period of two years after leaving the service (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 1/11). A bill signed by President Bush last week extends the period from two to five years.
According to government lawyers, federal law establishes “veterans’ eligibility for health care, but it does not create an entitlement to any particular medical service.” The lawyers said the law entitles veterans only to “medical care which the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) determines is needed, and only to the extent funds … are available.” The government attorneys also said VA “is making great progress in addressing the mental health care needs of combat veterans,” citing a law passed in November 2007 that established a suicide-prevention program that makes mental health care available around the clock. A hearing will be held March 7 before Conti.
Gordon Erspamer, the attorney representing about 320,000 to 800,000 veterans in the class-action lawsuit, said, “Veterans need to know in this country that the government thinks all their benefits are mere gratuities.” According to Erspamer, “They’re saying it’s completely discretionary, that even if Congress appropriates money for veterans’ health care, we can do anything we want with it” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/5).