June 6, VCS in the News: Judge Orders VA into Court to Explain VA E-Mail Discouraging PTSD Diagnoses

San Jose Mercury News / Associated Press

Judge to consider newly-surfaced e-mail in vet care trial

June 5, 2008, San Francisco, CA — A federal judge considering a lawsuit that alleges inadequate veterans medical care ordered government lawyers on Thursday to explain an e-mail by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) psychologist suggesting that counselors diagnose fewer post-traumatic stress disorder cases in soldiers.

The hearing ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti follows a two-week trial that ended last month. Veterans groups had sued the VA, saying it inadequately addressed a “rising tide” of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides.

The plaintiffs asked Conti to reopen the case in light of the e-mail discovered after the trial ended.

The judge agreed, saying “the e-mail raises potentially serious questions that may warrant further attention.” He ordered lawyers for both sides to appear in court Tuesday to discuss whether the e-mail has any bearing on the case.

The document in question is a March 20 memo written by Norma Perez, who helps coordinate a post-traumatic stress disorder clinical team in central Texas.

“Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out,” Perez wrote to VA counselors. “We really don’t or have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD.”

The e-mail was forwarded to VoteVets.org, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans lobbying group opposed to the Bush administration’s handling of the war and veterans issues.

Lawyers for the veterans groups argue that Perez’s e-mail goes to the heart of their case, showing the VA’s indifference to treating mental health.

“This is not Joe the janitor writing this,” vets’ lawyer Arturo Gonzalez said. “This is a supervisor and it shows how the VA thinks.”

Gonzalez wants the judge to add the e-mail to the evidence given to him at the non-jury trial in support of the lawsuit.

Government lawyers representing the VA didn’t return a telephone call Thursday. But on Wednesday, Justice Department lawyer James Schwartz wrote the judge a letter arguing that the e-mail was a mistake, that Perez had been “counseled” and that it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

“It was the action of a single individual that in no way represented the policies of VA, that, once discovered, was dealt with quickly and appropriately,” Schwartz told the judge.

Perez told senators Wednesday at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing called to investigate the e-mail that her message was poorly written and she meant to remind counselors that they could initially diagnose patients with a less severe stress condition known as “adjustment disorder.”

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