February 5, 2009 – The Oak Beach parents of a 21-year-old ex-Marine who died of a heroin overdose are suing the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying admissions personnel at a VA hospital in Pennsylvania incorrectly advised their son that he was ineligible for medical coverage assistance when he sought treatment there the day before he died. The suit alleges that VA officials told Robert Cafici he was ineligible because of his less than honorable discharge.
Cafici had gone to a VA hospital in Lebanon, Pa., on Dec. 13, 2007, complaining of symptoms of jaundice, according to his parents, Vincent and Concetta Cafici.
The lawsuit claims that a routine check of VA medical records would have shown VA personnel in Pennsylvania that Cafici was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and other unspecified ailments at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VA Medical Center at Northport. Doctors there considered him a suicide risk because of a similar overdose six months earlier, according to the records.
The lawsuit, which was drafted last year, comes amid allegations by veterans groups that Washington has been incompetent in addressing the psychological needs of U.S. troops and veterans stressed by more than seven years of war. Last month, both the Army and the Marines released figures showing sharp increases in suicides among uniformed personnel.
“I don’t know if the public is informed about how our boys are being treated,” Vincent Cafici said. “A lot of them need help, and I don’t know if they are getting it.”
A spokesman for the VA, Phil Budahn, said the department does not routinely comment on pending lawsuits.
He also said “for most veterans, the VA will only care for problems caused by or aggravated during their military service, and that in some circumstances, a less than honorable discharge can limit a veteran’s eligibility for medical care and other VA services.”
Cafici’s parents said their son, who lost 100 pounds in order to join the Marines, and served between December 2003 and March 2006, began struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder while he was stationed in Iraq. Concetta Cafici said her son was particularly distraught after having to pull the bodies of two Marines from a Humvee that was immolated during an attack.
She said her son fell into a depression after receiving a less than honorable discharge when he was discovered to have used an illegal steroid to bulk up as he prepared to again be deployed to Iraq.
She said she persuaded him to get treatment at Northport beginning in September 2006 after his anxieties worsened, and he began secluding himself in his bedroom at his parents’ home.
But he continued to struggle with depression and anxiety. In May 2007, he went into heroin-induced cardiac arrest at his parents’ home, according to their lawyer, Ray Negron, of Mt. Sinai. Negron said Northport doctors indicated in Cafici’s records that they considered the overdose to be a suicide attempt.
Negron said Robert Cafici moved to Pennsylvania to get away from bad influences after the overdose, but continued to attend counseling sessions at Northport.
According to the lawsuit, when Cafici sought treatment for jaundice at Lebanon, Pa., personnel there told him he was ineligible for care because of his discharge status, and that he would have to pay for care.
The lawsuit said Cafici left the hospital thinking he would no longer be able to receive treatment at Northport.
His mother said he called her as he left the hospital, and that she urged him to return to Long Island.
But he stopped at his apartment, where he took a fatal dose of heroin. His bloated body was discovered days later. “I think he was saying, ‘I’ve had enough,'” Concetta Cafici said. “I think he was saying ‘I don’t have anything to live for.'”