Column by “The Watchdog” Mentions VCS / VUFT Lawsuit Victory
May 25, 2011, Allentown, Pennsylvania (Morning Call) – As Memorial Day approaches, there is new hope the federal government will improve the care it offers military veterans.
A federal appeals court in California ruled this month that the Department of Veterans Affairs has not done an adequate job of meeting the mental health needs of veterans, and takes too long to process disability benefit claims.
The case could give the VA the kick in the rear it needs to improve its system, potentially saving lives.
“The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation.”
Those are pretty stunning words to hear from a court challenged with ruling on a touchy topic involving its own government. But they’re encouraging words, too, and based on my previous dealings with the VA, no doubt accurate.
The opinion came in a case brought by two nonprofit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for United Truth. They were seeking help in getting soldiers access to timely mental health care and reducing the time it takes to rule on service-connected disability and death compensation claims. The organizations claimed veterans’ constitutional due process rights were violated because they did not get their guaranteed care and benefits.
By a 2-1 decision, the appellate judges overturned a federal district court judge’s ruling that the delays were not “unreasonable” and that the courts had limited jurisdiction to do anything. The case was sent back to district court for a judge to work with all parties to draft a plan that would resolve the issues.
That judge had scheduled a conference for Friday to start the process, but it was delayed until July after VA lawyers argued they still could petition the circuit court to rehear the case, or appeal to the Supreme Court.
The VA declined to comment, referring me to the Justice Department, which said it is reviewing the matter.
“It’s precedent-setting,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “This is an enormous legal victory for veterans.”
He said the VA risks alienating veterans if it appeals the court’s decision instead of working to overhaul the system.
“VA would be saying, in effect, that veterans do not have due process constitutional rights,” Sullivan said.
While the agency wouldn’t discuss the legal case with me, it provided information on its efforts to improve how it provides benefits and handles claims.
It said it is “pushing aggressively to eliminate the disability claims backlog” and is making the process “paperless” to achieve “more accurate and timely decisions.” More mental health professionals have been hired recently, the VA said, and the president is seeking an additional $1 billion, a 20 percent increase, for mental health programs in the next federal budget.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said veterans returning from war are entitled by law to disability benefits, but it can take years to settle claims. Sometimes, veterans die while waiting.
Howard Green of Lehighton was one of them.
I wrote about him in 2009. Green was a career Marine, who served 22 years, including two in the Korean War, where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart.
He developed hearing and other health problems and applied for service-connected disability compensation from the VA in August 2008. His wife, Pauline Green, told me he initially was rejected after he mistakenly was classified as being ineligible for most benefits.
The VA eventually straightened things out, but it was too late.
Four days after the VA wrote a letter awarding his benefits, Green died. The timing of his death caused all sorts of problems for his widow. While he had been approved for benefits just before his death, the first check didn’t come until shortly after he died. Because he wasn’t alive to cash it, the VA ordered Pauline Green to return the money.
She did, then mounted a fight of her own to get the money back. After the Watchdog wrote about her problem, the VA paid her.
The appeals court opinion said many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are “forced” to wait weeks for mental health referrals, with no chance to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care.
“For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough,” Reinhardt wrote, noting that an average of 18 veterans kill themselves each day, and that about a quarter of those were enrolled in the VA health system.
The opinion includes a strong rebuke for the other branches of government, which the court said should have solved the VA’s problems instead of dumping them in their judicial laps.
“The political branches of our government are better positioned than are the courts to design the procedures necessary to save veterans’ lives and to fulfill our country’s obligation to care for those who have protected us,” Reinhardt wrote. “But that is only so if those governmental institutions are willing to do their job.”
You can read the court’s opinion on my blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/watchdog/.
VETERANS CRISIS LINE
Veterans for Common Sense urges veterans in emotional distress to get help by calling a confidential crisis line, 1-800-273-8255 (press 1). Families and friends of veterans also can call on their behalf.