Media Advisory: Judges to Decide if Supreme Court Hears Landmark Lawsuit

Contact: Veterans for Common Sense (202) 491-6953

Date: January 3, 2013

In the next few days, the Supreme Court will determine if it will hear arguments in the case, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki.  An announcement could come as early as this Friday.

In one of the most important landmark legal cases involving veterans’ access to healthcare and disability benefits in decades, two veterans groups filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on September 5, 2012, asking the Court to hear the case.  According to the Supreme Court’s web site, our case was distributed for conference of January 4, 2013.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2007 by VCS and Veterans United for Truth (VUFT), centers on one key issue: whether the Veterans Judicial Review Act allows veterans to challenge in federal court the systemic delays in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) provision of mental health care and death and disability compensation.

Learn more about our VCS / VUFT lawsuit at our web site.  The New York Times published several news articles about the veteran suicide crisis as well as the enormous disability claim backlog now at more than 1.1 million claims.  and the paper also published an editorial supporting the plight of our veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   Veterans for Common Sense also appeared on “60 Minutes” three years ago discussing the long waits veterans face when seeking VA assistance.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit formed in the District of Columbia in August 2002, VCS leads the way on many key VA reforms.  One major example is VA’s new streamlined disability benefits for PTSD based on scientific research announced in July 2010.

VCS is supported by foundation grants and donations from the public

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Veterans Petition for Supreme Court Hearing

In one of the most important landmark legal cases involving veterans’ access to healthcare and disability benefits in decades, two veterans groups filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on September 5, 2012, asking the Court to hear the case, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki.

The Court will determine in the next few months if it will hear arguments in the case centered on one key issue: whether the Veterans Judicial Review Act allows veterans to challenge in federal court the systemic delays in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) provision of mental health care and death and disability compensation.

Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth (VUFT), represented pro bono by Morrison & Foerster LLP and Disability Rights Advocates, submitted a 33-page petition for writ of certiorari requesting a Supreme Court review.  The two non-profit organizations wrote:

The Court should grant review now because any delay is at the expense of our Nation’s veterans.  Indeed, this case likely presents the only opportunity for this Court to intervene in time for the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Combat veterans are entitled to free health care from the VA for only 5 years after their service ends.  If left unreviewed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision will condemn these ‘veterans to suffer intolerable delays inherent in the VA system.’

VA Problems Persist

As of November 2012, VA faces a crisis of chronic delays and errors processing veterans’ disability compensation claims.  More than 1,150,000 veterans are now waiting for VA to decide a disability claim.  The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) reports 900,000 disability claims pending an average of eight months.  The Board of Veterans’ Appeals reports an additional 250,000 appealed claims pending an average of four more years.   In Congressional testimony on June 19, 2012, VA’s Office of the Inspector General reported how VA made errors in 30 percent of nearly 5,000 claims reviewed during inspections at 50 of VA’s regional offices. Thousands of veterans die each year while their disability claims languish at VA.

Serious challenges also face veterans seeking mental health care.  According to the Spokesman-Reviewnewspaper, “veterans are waiting an average of 80 days to meet with a mental health care provider at the Spokane VA Medical Center, falling far short of the 14-day goal set by Veterans Affairs…. Long wait times are ‘completely unacceptable,’ said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and present the VA with a disturbing discrepancy: ‘This report shows the huge gulf between the times VA says it takes to get veterans mental health care and the reality of how long it actually takes veterans to get seen at facilities across the country’ (John Stucke, April 24, 2012).  Eighteen veterans commit suicide each day, according to VA.

Case Chronology

The VCS/VUFT lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in July 2007.  After a two week trial in April 2008, the District Court ruled in favor of VA in June 2008. The District Court said it lacked jurisdiction to overhaul the 300,000-employee, $140 billion per year agency.  The District Court ruling detailed many serious delays and obstacles facing veterans when seeking medical care or disability benefits from VA.

In May 2010, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of VCS and VUFT, prompting national headlines about 18 veteran suicides per day.   However, one year later an 11-judge en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed course and supported VA in May 2012.

Amicus briefs in support of VCS and VUFT’s petition in the Supreme Court were filed on October 10, 2012.  VA, represented by the Department of Justice, will have an opportunity to file a brief responding to the petition by November 30, 2012.  The Court will announce in late 2012 or early 2013 if it will hear the case.

Anyone interested can visit the Supreme Court’s web site, www.supremecourt.gov, and view the status of the landmark VCS/VUFT case, Docket 12-296.

Eric Shinseki is named as a defendant in the case because he is the current VA Secretary.  The original suit was filed against R. James Nicholson, the former Secretary under former President George W. Bush.

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Changes at Veterans for Common Sense

The Board of Veterans for Common Sense is sorry to announce the departure of Patrick Bellon as executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. Patrick will be moving on to take on bigger challenges, and we wish him the best.

Since 2002, Veterans for Common Sense has been at the forefront of national security and veterans issues, and during his year as executive director Patrick has continued that work, helping to put a public face to the issues returning Iraq and Afghanistan face, as well as working with our legal team on the lawsuit VCS vs. Shinseki, which is now before the Supreme Court.

Though we are sad about his departure, the mission continues. Over the coming months, VCS will continue pursuing our landmark lawsuit, as well as working to ensure that returning veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq receive the assistance they need.

During the transition, if you need to contact VCS, please call or email board member Charles Sheehan-Miles (Charles@veteransforcommonsense.org) for policy issues or Paul Sullivan (paul@veteransforcommonsense.org) for media inquiries.

As always, thank you for your support of Veterans for Common Sense.

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House bill would speed disability payments to wounded troops

From Triblive.com
By Carl Prine

Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012, 5:36 p.m.
Updated: Saturday, October 6, 2012

A bipartisan bill promises to speed disability payments to troops wounded in Afghanistan, but it must clear a Congress so divided that 96 percent of proposed legislation dies on Capitol Hill.

Inspired by chats with wounded troops at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Centre County, has proposed HR 6445, the Recovering Service Members Disability Benefits Act. It would exempt active-duty, Reserve and National Guard service members injured in a combat zone from the customary five-month waiting period for Social Security Disability Insurance payments.

This would help the most vulnerable veterans and their families – those troops transitioning out of the military but too sick to work.

These payments, often shortened to “SSDI,” typically augment benefits from the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs and are provided only to permanently disabled personnel. Social Security expedites claims for wounded troops, but Thompson’s measure would end the waiting period for the disability payments.

“For those men and women who have sustained combat-related injuries, they deserve better,” said Thompson, 53. “We need to collapse that five-month wait. The money they deserve already has been approved and the additional costs for this are minimal. I’m very optimistic that it can get through.”

Thompson would like the lame-duck Senate to fold his measure into the $635 billion defense spending bill the House passed in May. It has not been enacted because of partisan election-year squabbling.

Thompson’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa, and three House Republicans: Lycoming County’s Tom Marino, North Carolina’s Walter Jones and Florida’s Allen West, a Tea Party favorite who also is a retired Army veteran of the war in Iraq.

“Our service members who have been wounded defending our country should not have to wait for benefits or face financial hardship. They should be able to focus on their recovery, not delays in their benefits,” Loebsack said in a written statement.

The VFW supports Thompson’s bill, which also garnered support from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the National Guard Association of the United States.

“Our American heroes have earned this,” said Thompson. “What little cost there is, it will diminish in time as the war in Afghanistan winds down.”

Read more: http://triblive.com/home/2731008-74/thompson-bill-troops-wounded-benefits-disability-payments-members-service-afghanistan#ixzz28pRSWHMY
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Veterans can find help through crisis line

By MARY WICOFF 

Commercial-News, Danville, Ill.
Published: October 7, 2012

DANVILLE — Veterans in crisis no longer have to keep the problem a secret — especially if it’s something life-threatening, such as thoughts of suicide.

“We’re here. We’re proactive,” said Natalie Liggett, MSW, LCSW, suicide prevention care manager at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System. “Suicide prevention is everyone’s business.”

In the past, mental health issues carried a stigma, and people kept problems a secret. Today, the VA is actively bringing the topic out into the open and making sure veterans get the care they need — before something happens.

“One of our main goals is awareness and reaching out,” said Bonnie Ellis, suicide prevention coordinator, who has been with the local VA for more than 20 years. She has been with the Suicide Prevention Program since it started five years ago.

She believes the program, which is part of the mental health department, is making a difference, saying, “I think we’ve really enhanced our care to reach veterans who may be at risk.”

The Veterans Crisis Line, which is based in New York, started with 50 responders, and now there are more than 100 people responding to crises.

“It’s a very good system,” she said. “Crisis responders are unique in their expertise, to assess the problem and facilitate care.”

When a vet calls the national crisis line, the responder will take immediate action and also contact the local crisis workers. With the veteran’s permission, Ellis and Liggett will set up outpatient care, if appropriate, or make other arrangements to make sure that he or she gets help.

“A lot of times, we’re educating a veteran or the family member for the first time on how we function,” Ellis said, and also registering the veteran for services.

Liggett and Ellis make at least five presentations a month to agencies in the communities served by the Illiana System. They also hold trainings for new employees.

Educating everyone about suicide prevention is key, Liggett said, because a veteran might open up to a groundskeeper or chaplain, rather than a mental health professional.

When a veteran is talking about suicide or seems at risk, the Suicide Prevention Program will be alerted. Even if a veteran attempted or thought about suicide several months ago, the office will be contacted. Liggett or Ellis will contact the veteran to make sure he’s receiving treatment and responding to it.

If a veteran misses an appointment, someone calls to make sure he or she is OK.

“Everyone does a great job assessing veterans,” Liggett said. “I think everyone here is doing well.”

The national crisis line isn’t called the suicide line anymore because a veteran might have a different crisis in his life. For example, a veteran might be despondent over financial woes, legal action, relationship problems or a job loss. Or he might have trouble adjusting to civilian life after years in the military.

Veterans who call the crisis line aren’t necessarily talking about suicide. Sometimes, they just don’t know where else to turn.

“Veterans always say they’re glad to have someone to talk to,” Liggett said.

Sometimes, a veteran can be out of the service several years before he or she feels the need to open up to someone. “When they leave active duty, they’re given a lot of information,” Ellis said. “Their main goal is to re-enter their life.”

It’s a process re-adjusting to civilian life, and a person will have ups and downs.

Considering the number of young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA added a text feature late last year. The younger vets are more comfortable texting or chatting online, Liggett said.

“I think we’re being proactive and letting the veteran know we’re here,” she said.

During Suicide Prevention Month, which was last month, VA officials set up informational tables and distributed items with the national crisis line number on them. One day, speakers gave presentations on suicide prevention to veterans; on another day, presentations were given to clinical staff on trauma and why it must be addressed.

Statistics

Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 640,000 calls and made more than 23,000 life-saving rescues. In 2009, an anonymous online chat service was added, which has helped more than 50,000 people.

The VA responders — many of them veterans themselves — also provide referrals to local VA services and help vets get fast-tracked mental health care.

In the Illiana System — which includes Lafayette, Ind., Decatur, Peoria, Springfield and Mattoon — there were 34 suicide attempts (includes five females) and seven completions (all men) in 2011.

Five died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds and two died of overdose. Three were veterans from the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom era; one each from Vietnam era and post-Vietnam; and two were post-Korean War.

With the attempted suicides, 23 tried to overdose and five tried cutting. Other attempts involving hanging, suffocation, poison and death by police. Ten of the 34 attempts were veterans from OEF/OIF era; 11 served in the Gulf War; four were Vietnam era; seven were post-Vietnam and one was post-Korea.

Gun safety

Nationally, 68 percent of veteran suicide deaths involved a firearm, and there is an almost five times higher risk of suicide for persons who live in a household where at least one firearm is kept.

Because of the high number of deaths by gunshot, the local Suicide Prevention Program is starting a campaign later this year on gun safety.

“We’re not trying to take guns away,” Liggett said. “We want to make sure they’re safely stored and have gun locks.”

When a gun is locked, that gives a veteran time to stop and think twice about what he’s doing.

The Suicide Prevention office has brochures detailing safe storage and safety tips. Mental health workers already give out gun locks to veterans.

Getting involved

Ellis noted that friends and family members also need to get involved. People should “facilitate and advocate on behalf of a loved one, and get them into an appropriate environment for assessment.

“We want to educate people to take action on that gut feeling. It’s that access to care that’s so powerful.”

Either make that call for the veteran or walk him or her into a clinic, she said.

After having been in the mental health field for more than 20 years, Ellis said, “It’s been a wonderful opportunity to be part of a program that started in the VA and has great national direction. It’s been a challenge … it’s been a good challenge.”

She added, “I think we’ve come a long way.”

For help:

The VA offers a network of support for veterans and their families and friends:

  • Call the free and confidential crisis line at (800) 273-8255, and press 1.
  • Go to www.VeteransCrisisLine.net to access the confidential, anonymous online chat with a responder.
  • Text to 838255.
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