On Monday, January 7, 2013, we lost our bid for the Supreme Court to hear our appeal so no Veteran waits for care or benefits, especially for mental healthcare. Since our landmark lawsuit was filed in July 2007, Veterans for Common Sense generated hundreds of pro-Veteran news articles, more than twenty appearances before Congress, a few trips to the White House, and several productive meetings with top VA leaders in Washington, DC.
Formed in 2002 by Gulf War Veterans raising concerns about a second invasion of Iraq, VCS is a non-profit based in Washington, DC. One of our top concerns raised in March 2003 was a lack of preparedness by VA to handle a tidal wave of new patients and claims due to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. We were right. VA failed to plan.
So far, VA has treated more than 834,000 new, first-time Iraq and Afghanistan War Veteran patients. Among those are 445,000 diagnosed with mental health conditions by VA professionals. VA also received more than 750,000 disability claims from recent war veterans. Only half of the PTSD claims are approved by VA. Although that number is low, the percentage has improved substantially since VA published new PTSD regulations in 2010.
Unfortunately, after 11 years of renewed war in Asia, VA still has no plan to make sure our Veterans don’t wait for care and benefits. The current wars placed an unprecedented set of new strains on VA, and VA is still catching up with new resources, even as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down.
We are disappointed the Supreme Court did not hear our case. Yet our effort was not in vain, as we exposed many severe problems at VA, and we offered many pragmatic solutions, several of which were adopted. Our suit was joined by Veterans United for Truth, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and the American Legion. We thank them for their support.
This update has two sections: VCS Lawsuit Accomplishments, and VA’s Continuing Crisis.
First, Our VCS Lawsuit Accomplishments
Thanks to the efforts of so many volunteers and the help of the law firm Morrison / Foerster in San Francisco, our landmark case prompted many progressive reforms for VA that are improving the lives of Veterans. Although we lost at the Supreme Court, our VCS lawsuit, along with advocacy of other organizations, reporters, legislators, and volunteers, prompted VA and/or Congress take action on several fronts, including the following:
• Suicide Prevention in 2007. In response to our lawsuit, in 2007 VA set up a suicide prevention hotline, saving 25,000 Veterans so far, out of 800,000+ calls and texts placed by distraught Veterans to VA. This is our best accomplishment. Our many thanks to the thousands of current and new mental healthcare providers making a significant difference at VA and in the lives of our Veterans.
• Suicide Prevention in 2012. In August 2012, President Obama increased Veteran suicide prevention funding 50 percent, again, as a result of our unique lawsuit. Unfortunately, thousands of the new VA positions remain vacant, and we hope VA fills them soon as a top priority.
• Suicide Prevention Coordinators. VA hired suicide prevention coordinators for each facility. VA now proactively screens Veterans for suicide risk. This means VA is finally treating mental health conditions as nearly as equal as physical conditions. Let’s hope this positive trend continues.
• Appointments. VA issued a first-ever policy where Veterans get mental health appointments in 14 days. Veterans in need of emergency care are now seen right away. Although in 2012 U.S. Senators found VA isn’t living up to the standard in all cases, at least VA now has a goal and collects more data on this serious problem.
• PTSD. In January 2009, VCS petitioned VA to rewrite PTSD regulations to reduce the burden on veterans filing claims. In response to our petition, VA issued new PTSD regulations in July 2010. This helps hundreds of thousands of new war Veterans, plus hundreds of thousands from prior wars, obtain VA disability benefits and the free mental healthcare that comes with it.
• TBI. VA issued new TBI regulations in 2012, again, after VCS testified before Congress and raised the issue at meetings in Washington. This helps hundreds of thousands of Veterans obtain VA healthcare and disability benefits for conditions associated with traumatic brain injury.
• Claim Forms. In March 2010, VCS held a press conference called “Fix VA,” with Chairman Bob Filner, head of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where we highlighted the 26-page form required for veterans to file a claim with VA. In response, VA developed a six page claim form, replacing the unreasonable 26-page form. This new form helps hundreds of thousands of Veterans a year. VCS successfully argued that the long form was an unfair burden on Veterans with TBI and PTSD.
• Suicide Suits. For individual veterans who already completed suicide, our VCS case highlighted the issue and paved the way for their families win their individual cases. Most families of Veterans improperly turned away by VA received out-of-court settlements from VA.
• Suicide Condolence Letters. After a VCS meeting with White House officials in 2011, President Barack Obama began sending condolence letters to families of Veterans who completed suicide in the war zone. With a stroke of a pen, stigma was significantly reduced.
• Lifetime Electronic Records. For discharging service members, DoD and VA will have a seamless, single computerized medical record. This addresses the issues of claims and medical care delayed or denied based on lost military paper records. Although not complete, much progress was made. The sooner this is finished, the more VA can rely on computers instead of paper.
• Computers. VBA has launched the “Veterans Benefits Management System,” with the goal of computerizing veterans claims. This should end the current paper-based system, thus ending issues such as shredded and lost claim folders. Although we have reservations on how this is implemented (VBMS slowed to a crawl in December and there is no contingency in the event of failure), the goal of expediting claims is a good idea.
• Advocacy. VCS testified before Congress in support of increased funding, and VA’s budget soared from $100 billion to $140 billion in the past four years. That helps all Veterans.
• Five Years of Free VA Care. VCS met with then-Senators Obama, Clinton, Bond, Snowe, Collins, and others starting in 2006 to press for free medical care for returning veterans to be extended to five years. Congress finally enacted this extension. This helps 2.5 million Veterans deployed overseas since 9/11, plus all future deployed Veterans.
• In 2010, Congress exempted VA from the “fiscal cliff.” Veterans can thank then-Speaker Pelosi for removing VA from the austerity programs proposed by the Tea Party and Republicans in order to preserve tax cuts for the rich. Veterans can rest assured their medical care and disability benefits will continue during these turbulent and unproductive times in Congress.
• In 2011, VCS exposed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party plan to cut billions of dollars from VA spending on healthcare and disability benefits in order to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. After VCS shared Bachmann’s plan with the New York Times and newspapers in her home state of Minnesota, she withdrew her outrageous plan.
• Congressional hearings forced VA to make embarrassing admissions such as the Ira Katz e-mails. His e-mails revealed VA’s negligent, disgraceful, and adversarial actions towards Veterans by concealing the suicide statistics. Our supporters in Austin remember the outrage among Veterans and families at the suggestion by a VA psychologist supervisor in Texas that VA avoid PTSD diagnoses due to budget and staffing constraints.
Second, VA’s Continuing Crises
VA remains mired in several crises.
Veterans for Common Sense intends to continue fighting to reform VA so that no veteran waits for VA healthcare or benefits.
We are deeply disappointed the Supreme Court did not hear the urgent plea of suicidal Veterans who currently face delays of months, and often years, seeking VA assistance. No Veteran should ever wait for quality healthcare and disability benefits for physical and mental health conditions.
Although significant improvements were made in some areas within VA, many at the prompting of VCS, the nation’s second largest department remains in deep crisis due to decades of underfunding and a lack of significant Congressional oversight of VA’s $140 billion per year budget. For example, did you know that the Republicans and Democrats only have one professional staffer each at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs who performs oversight of VBA’s budget of $75 billion per year?
VA’s own statistics provide the greatest indictment of an agency needing reform:
• A shocking 18 Veterans commit suicide every day. This information is from 2006. VA has not released any new information, even though VA promised to do so several times in the past six years. The revelation of this grim fact was possible only due to our VCS lawsuit that forced VA to release e-mails and reports on suicide.
• More than 18,000 Veterans contact VA for suicide prevention each month. The good news is the 810,000 contacts Veterans made with VA’s suicide prevention hotline since August 2007. VA has rescued more than 25,000. Imagine how much worse the situation would be if not for dedicated, professional VA staff helping veterans 24/7.
• Last year, the families of nearly 20,000 Veterans were paid disability benefits after the Veterans died. That’s a shocking disgrace that so many veterans died while waiting on VA claims.
• More than 1.1 million Veterans still await VA disability claim decisions. VA’s goal is to process all claims within 125 days with an error rate of two percent. However, VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) continues failing:
– 900,000 cases wait an average of nine months for a new or re-opened claim decision, up from 634,000 claims waiting five months for a decision in July 2007.
– 250,000 cases wait four more years for an appealed claim decision, up from 160,000 appeals in July 2007.
– VBA’s Aspire reported a 14 percent VBA error rate in 2012. Since VBA’s Aspire error rate is new, there is no comparison from 2007.
– VA’s Office of the Inspector General reported a 30 percent VBA error rate in 2012. These error rate reports for each VBA Regional Office generated by VA’s OIG began under the Obama Administration in 2009. Note: There has been a significant improvement in PTSD claim errors, and that is attributed by VA’s OIG to VA’s new PTSD regulations implemented in 2010.
• VA did not fully implement the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act.
Conclusion and Next Steps
The bottom line is that VA continues making substantial improvements, many prompted by the VCS lawsuit, news coverage, and Congressional action. However, VA still has a long way to go so that no Veteran is improperly delayed or denied earned healthcare and benefits. In addition to VA’s notorious claim processing disaster, and VA’s lack of publicly available suicide research and statistics, VA’s other major scandal not addressed by the VCS lawsuit is VA’s continuing failure to provide healthcare and disability benefits for Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War Veterans who are sick and disabled due to toxic exposures.
With the Iraq War nearly over (about 1,500 troops remain), and with plans to reduce troops in Afghanistan (about 60,000 remain), our attention must focus on reforming VA over the long-term. Demand for care and benefits will continue increasing for decades among the current generation of war Veterans, with an estimated cost of $1 trillion over the next 40 years. And we must also care for all prior Veterans of peace and war who use VA.
Our warmest thank you to our foundation sponsors, donors, staff, volunteers, and supporters for your loyal assistance during the past six years as we embarked on a bold legal effort to improve Veterans’ lives by reforming a beleaguered VA. We prompted VA to improve, and VA saved many lives that otherwise may have been lost due to undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions.