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Shehnaz Bhujwala
Shehnaz Bhujwala
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Federal Judge Permits Class-Action Lawsuit To Proceed Against VA

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Veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shall have their day in court, after all. US District Court Judge Samuel Conti has cleared a national class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the US Department of Veteran’s Affair’s claims system. The ruling affirms the rights of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to sue in federal court over the huge backlog of claims, the lengthy waiting time that veterans face in receiving needed mental health care, and the inadequacy of care for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The complaint, filed in the United States District Court in July, seeks a judicial finding that VA’s system of handling claims and appeals is so dysfunctional that it violates veterans’ constitutional and statutory rights. The suit also calls for court orders requiring VA to provide immediate medical and psychological help to returning troops and to screen them for risk of suicide.

The class action lawsuit was filed in San Francisco on July 23, 2007 by Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth. Plaintiffs claim that the VA violated federal laws and veterans’ civil rights, citing a lack of neutral judges and prohibitions on vets’ hiring lawyers at the initial phase of a case or demanding that the VA produce documents and witnesses that might shore up their claims. The VA is charged with “shameful failures … to meet our nation’s legal and moral obligations to honor and care for our wounded veterans” who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without systematic reform, the suit contends, “the costs to these veterans, their families and our nation will be incalculable,” and will contribute to a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans and a burden on local social services.

Disability Rights Advocates argue that VA now has a backlog of more than 600,000 claim applications, with some dating back to the Vietnam era. Of the 750,000 veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, at least 15% are thought to suffer from PTSD, an emotional illness characterized by sleep-related disorders, such as nightmares, anxiety, impaired memory, anger, loss of control, irritability and hypervigilance. The VA’s failure to provide treatment — only 27 of the nation’s 1,400 VA hospitals have programs dedicated to PTSD — has led to an “epidemic of suicides” by returning troops, said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense, the lead plaintiff group.

Plaintiffs do not seek monetary damages, only an order requiring the VA to stop “illegal policies and practices,” such as the months-long delays in reviewing claims and providing care to PTSD victims. the suit is the first to accuse the federal department of constitutional violations and to seek sweeping changes in its processing of disability claims

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel L. Conti, a World War II veteran, rejected the government’s arguments that civil courts have no authority over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical decisions or how it handles grievances and claims. If the plaintiffs can prove their allegations, Conti said, they would show that “thousands of veterans, if not more, are suffering grievous injuries as the result of their inability to procure desperately needed and obviously deserved health care.”

In a 42 page order denying the government’s motion to dismiss three of the lawsuits four claims, Judge Conti ruled that the federal system for weighing individual veterans’ claims “does not provide an adequate alternative remedy for Plaintiffs’ claims for several reasons” and that the “federal courts are competent to decide whether those injuries were caused by flaws in the health care system and the VA’s grievance procedures.” Judge Conti did not rule on the adequacy of the treatment system, which will be addressed in future proceedings. Time and CNN both report that the VA has issued a statement saying it is “dedicated to meeting the mental health care needs of all veterans.” The statement also noted an increase in its mental health care staff and creation of new programs to treat returning soldiers.

Judge Conti has scheduled a Feb. 22 hearing to consider arguments by plaintiffs to stop the VA from turning away suicidal vets and from withholding funds appropriated by Congress for mental health treatment of veterans.