July 29, 2008 – Two veterans groups have asked a federal appeals court to force the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to expedite disability claims and treat troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The groups – Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth Inc. – filed a notice Monday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to overturn a lower court ruling in their lawsuit. Filed in July 2007, their lawsuit claims that the VA system that identifies and processes sufferers of PTSD has collapsed.
Judge Samuel Conti, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, rejected the lawsuit on June 25, saying the claims were outside of the court’s jurisdiction and would require a complete overhaul of the VA by Congress.
The veterans groups contend that the VA and Congress do not have the exclusive right to decide due-process issues and that the courts have a pivotal role to help improve the lives of veterans suffering from the mental disorder.
“We think the judge’s ruling is wrong, and where there is a wrong, there is some remedy,” said the groups’ attorney, Gordon P. Erspamer of the law firm Morrison & Foerster. “Look at all these soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with horrible psychic wounds getting turned away from VA facilities.”
As an example, Mr. Erspamer cited the case of Lucas Senescall, a Navy veteran beset with psychological problems who hanged himself on July 7 after being turned away from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. The local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, reported that his was the sixth suicide of a veteran under care at the Spokane VA this year.
Monday’s appeals court notice comes on the heels of a new report that 22,000 veterans have called a new suicide prevention hot line installed last year – a rate of nearly 250 a day.
“That’s not reasonable and there has to be some remedy for veterans,” Mr. Erspamer said. “They are being treated like second-class citizens when they are a superclass and should be getting better treatment, not worse.”
The VA referred calls for comment to the Justice Department, where spokesman Charles Miller said agency lawyers will review the appeal and respond in court.
Judge Conti ruled that “the VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s veterans [who] have faced significant delays in receiving disability benefits and medical care from the VA.”
“Although the evidence clearly did not prove that every veteran always gets immediate mental health care, it by no means follows that there is a systemwide crisis in which health care is not being provide within a reasonable time,” Judge Conti said.
A recent report by the Rand Corp. found that one in five of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets have some form of PTSD.
The veterans groups said in a statement that a “flood of veterans with mental health problems will continue to increase” along with repeat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The veterans groups’ lawsuit represents up to 800,000 veterans, most of whom fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and does not seek monetary damages.