February 7, 2008 – SALEM, Oregon – President Bush says veterans have no legal right to specific types of medical care. The information is coming from documents related to a civil lawsuit filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war who claim the government is illegally denying mental health treatment to some troops.
The arguments, filed Wednesday in a San Francisco federal court, “strike at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of veterans that claims the health care system for returning troops provides little recourse when the government rejects their medical claims,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported today.
Justice Department lawyers countered the accusations, claiming that the Veterans Affairs administration is working to increase staffing and screening veterans for combat-related stress.
But that isn’t their main point.
What they really have to say about it is that their agency, and not Congress, will decide which veterans should get health care and they reserve the right to cut people off if they elect to do so internally. They contend that the discretion is purely theirs, not veterans or the courts.
Veterans are fuming over the announcement and over the fact that the commander in chief loves to commend the troops for their efforts while in reality, denying them the most basic rights when it comes to healthcare.
In fact, government lawyers compare some veterans’ desires to attain healthcare to a desire for an “entitlement” and most veterans scoff at the notion that expecting the government to care for the health problems that the government itself created would be viewed as an entitlement rather than as a simple right of decency.
Justice Department lawyers say a federal law that provides five years of care for veterans from the date of their discharge establishes eligibility for a veteran to receive health care, “but it does not create an entitlement to any particular medical service,” government lawyers said.
The lawyers say the law only authorizes veterans “medical care which the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) determines is needed, and only to the extent funds … are available.”
One lawyer represneting these veterans, Gordon Erspamer, says the suit is a proposed class action on behalf of 320,000 to 800,000 veterans or their survivors. He sued the government in July.
“Veterans need to know in this country that the government thinks all their benefits are mere gratuities,” attorney Gordon Erspamer said. “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.”
The matter will come up again on March 7th at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti. This is the same judge who denied the Bush Administration’s request last month to dismiss the suit.
The case is still up in the air, but the plaintiffs are not hesitating in asking Conti to order the government to provide immediate mental health treatment for veterans who say they are thinking of killing themselves and to spend another $60 million on health care.
In the lawsuit, the VA is accused of arbitrarily denying care and benefits to wounded veterans, of forcing them to wait months for treatment and years for benefits, and of failing to provide fair procedures for appealing decisions against them.
The plaintiffs reference the department’s backlog of over 600,000 disability claims and cited the fact that 120 veterans a week commit suicide.
Conti ruled January 10th that federal law entitles veterans to health care for a specific period after leaving the service. He rejected the government’s argument that it was required to provide only as much care as the VA’s budget allowed in a given year.
A law that President Bush signed last week extended the period from two to five years.
In its latest filing, however, the Justice Department reiterated that Congress had intended “to authorize, but not require, medical care for veterans.”
“This court should not interfere with the political branches’ design, oversight and modification of VA programs,” the government lawyers argued.
They also said the VA “is making great progress in addressing the mental health care needs of combat veterans.” Among other things, they cited a law passed in November that required the department to establish a suicide-prevention program that includes making mental health care available around the clock.
In their own defense, the attorneys for the VA argues that they have hired nearly 3,800 mental health professionals over the last two years and has at least one specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder at each of its medical centers, the government said. They did not comment on the public pressure that has led to those increased numbers.
They say the VA implemented a policy in June stating that all veterans who seek or are referred for mental health care should be screened within 24 hours, that those found to be at risk of suicide should be treated immediately, and that others should be scheduled for full diagnosis and treatment planning within two weeks.
The attorneys also touted a new suicide-prevention hot line that they say has led to “more than 380 rescues.”
But the lawyer for the military veterans who seek healthcare says he was not impressed.
“Nowhere do I see any explanation of what kind of systems they have in place that deal with suicidal veterans,” he said.
“There’s no excuse for not spending the money Congress told them to spend on mental health care and leaving $60 million on the table when people are going out and killing themselves.”
Special thanks to Bob Egelko and the San Francisco Chronicle for information contained in this article.