Veterans Agency Sued Over Suicides

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
April 21, 2008 Groups allege failure in care
By Paul Elias, Associated Press
San Francisco--The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs isn't doing enough to prevent suicide and provide adequate medical care for Americans who have served in the armed forces, a class-action lawsuit that goes to trial this week charges.
The lawsuit, filed in July by two nonprofit groups representing military veterans, accuses the agency of inadequately addressing a "rising tide" of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.
But government lawyers say the VA has been devoting more resources to mental health and making suicide prevention a top priority. They also argue that the courts don't have the authority to tell the department how it should operate.
The trial is set to begin today in a San Francisco federal court.
An average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day, and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide, according to a December e-mail between top VA officials that was filed as part of the federal lawsuit.
"That failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides," the veterans groups wrote in court papers filed Thursday.
A study released last week by the RAND Corp. estimated 300,000 U.S. troops--about 20 percent of those deployed--are suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We find that the VA has simply not devoted enough resources," said Gordon Erspamer, the lawyer representing the veterans groups. "They don't have enough psychiatrists."
The lawsuit also alleges that the VA takes too long to pay disability claims and that its internal appellate process unconstitutionally denies veterans their right to take their complaints to court.
The groups are asking U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who served in the Army during World War II, to order the VA to drastically overhaul its system. Conti is hearing the trial without a jury.
Government lawyers in their filings have defended the VA's average claims processing time as "reasonable," given that it has to prove a veteran's disability was incurred during service time.
They also noted that the VA will spend $3.8 billion for fiscal 2008 on mental health and announced a policy in June that requires all medical centers to have mental health staff available all the time to provide urgent care. They said that "suicide prevention is a singular priority for the VA."
The VA "has hired over 3,700 new mental health professionals in the last 2 1/2 years, bringing the total number of mental health professionals within VA to just under 17,000. This hiring effort continues," they said.