Mar. 3 Update #2: Hearing Begins in Health Lawsuit Against VA

Associated Press

March 3, 2008, San Francisco, California (AP) – Lawyers for two veterans groups asked a judge Monday to order the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to overhaul its health system, especially its mental health treatment, to meet growing demand from soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two veteran advocacy groups sued the Bush administration last year, claiming that the VA failed to provide prompt disability benefits, add staff to reduce wait times for medical care and boost services for post-traumatic stress disorder. A weeklong hearing on the lawsuit began Monday in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the VA and Pentagon after reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere. Suicides and suicide attempts continue to rise, the Pentagon reports.

The groups suing are Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, which claims 11,500 members, and Santa Barbara-based Veterans United for Truth with 500 members.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti is scheduled to hear from dueling mental health experts this week to determine whether he should order the VA to immediately spend about $60 million to provide care to hundreds of thousands of veterans they say have pending health claims.

“The VA has repeatedly failed to implement programs,” veterans’ lawyer Gordon Erspamer told the judge. “Mental health funding is not being spent on mental health.”

Erspamer urged the judge to act soon to fix a health care system he says is plagued by staffing shortages, high turnover and a crushing need to treat about 56,000 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Erspamer argued the demand is expected to increase as more soldiers return from combat zones.

“What is going to happen to the health care system when they all return?” he asked the judge.

The judge responded that he was concerned he had scant authority to tell the VA how to spend its budget, even if he does determine there are problems.

“I have very limited jurisdiction,” Conti said.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Daniel Bensing echoed that by telling Conti that issuing such an order had the practical effect of putting the judge in charge of patient care. The veterans’ demands are “unwarranted, unworkable and would do more harm than good.”

The VA has made “massive changes,” Bensing said, adding new resources and mental health workers since 2005 in response to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is not the policy of the VA to turn away veterans when they need emergency care,” he said. “They get emergency care.”

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