Veterans Have Big Win in Federal Court
Originally posted 2008-01-12 06:49:34 -0600. - standingup
I'm taking the liberty to crosspost an Important Diary, from yesterdays DKOS, with permission from Melissa Kasnitz, who replied to me to pass on the News Release. What better than just the News Release but her whole Post, links and all, also added a few more at bottom.
Melissa Posted This Yesterday Over At DKOS, it quickly moved off the list even before I caught it when I got home from work. it's now been Rescued, if you have a KOS account Visit Link and Rate It, as well as the comments, Up today, 1-12-08, so that it gets the readers it should, and is brought back from obscurity to the Rec List, and Visit the Embedded Links to find out More!
On Thursday, a federal court ruled that a lawsuit regarding VA’s failure to provide appropriate health care and benefits to veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can go forward. The case claims that the VA benefit system is unconstitutional because of extreme delays in determining whether veterans are entitled to support. The case also argues that VA fails to provide health care to veterans, even those that are suicidal. The plaintiffs are two veterans groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth. The lawyers representing the plaintiffs are Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit lawfirm in Berkeley, California, and Morrison & Foerster, a large private lawfirm headquartered in San Francisco.
This is Melissa Kasnitz, a DRA lawyer on the case. I’m happy to respond to comments. Our press release on the ruling, and the press release from Veterans for Common Sense, are attached below. The order is available at our website. I'm not linking to it because it is a 42 page pdf (and because I don't know how).
For people who are not familiar with the lawsuit, Ilona diaried it extensively when the case was first filed.
This ruling is extremely significant – it means that veterans will have their day in court to argue that the existing system is unfair.
DRA Press Release:
DISABLED VETS WIN KEY RULING IN NATIONAL SUIT AGAINST VA OVER MISTREATMENT
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – A federal court in San Francisco today cleared the way for a major national class action lawsuit on behalf of disabled veterans to directly challenge the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 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.
"VA first mistreated hundreds of thousands of veterans, then took the position that the vets could not bring their grievances to court to be heard," says Melissa Kasnitz, the managing attorney for Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit law firm in Berkeley, California. "Today, VA’s shameful effort to keep these deserving veterans from their day in court was rejected."
Most disabled veterans cannot receive medical treatment without an approved disability claim. However, VA now has a backlog of over 600,000 applications for claims, and a decision on a claim can take up to twelve years to be processed through appeals. Some pending claims go back to the Vietnam era. Even after claims have been approved, veterans face serious problems in receiving care. Because the demand for medical care and treatment by VA has risen dramatically since the U.S. became involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA has long waiting lists and, in some cases, no appropriate treatment for disabled veterans is available.
"We can now address the disgraceful fact that it takes an average of 177 days for VA to process an initial claim for disability benefits, and an additional 657 days, on average, for an appeal, so most veterans wait years for needed medical and mental health treatment, unless they give up or die first," said DRA attorney Sid Wolinsky.
Many disabled veterans give up in despair or frustration, fall into drug or alcohol dependency, or commit suicide. In fact, the total number of military suicides in 2005 was greater than the cumulative death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to a CBS News investigation. "Improper delays and denials of treatment and benefits have contributed to an epidemic of suicides," according to Co-counsel Gordon Erspamer of Morrison & Foerster; "Because VA refuses to act, we have to ask the Court to protect our returning soldiers."
The suit claims that numerous VA practices violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans with PTSD by denying veterans adequate procedural safeguards in VA benefits process, access to the judicial process, mandated medical care, and VA benefits as a result of their condition. In addition to seeking a declaration from the court that these practices violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans, the lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing VA from continuing certain policies and procedures. No money damages are being sought, and the class action lawsuit will not address the individual claims of any veteran. The Court dismissed an additional claim that VA’s procedures violate the Rehabilitation Act which requires government agencies to ensure that their programs are accessible to people with disabilities. Plaintiffs in the case include two non-profit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, on behalf of all veterans who are seeking or receiving health care or disability benefits from VA. Plaintiffs are represented by the public interest law firm Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and the private law firm of Morrison & Foerster,
Among those veterans suffering with PTSD the most are returning Iraq and Afghanistan troops. Between 15-50% of returning troops have PTSD, according to the complaint. These troops are being deprived of critical mental health services, especially in the early phases of the illness when identification and treatment are crucial. Left untreated, severe PTSD can lead to substance abuse, depression and suicide. Veterans with PTSD and other psychiatric disabilities may also be the most unprepared to face the bureaucratic battles necessary to secure the benefits to which they are entitled.
The suit alleges that VA has not only shortchanged the disabled veterans for whom they are supposed to provide care, but it has also consistently presented misleading statistics to the American public. Specifically, the complaint says that VA has falsely understated the length of time it takes to decide a veteran’s claims and the true cost of caring for disabled veterans.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is the most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat. According to the complaint, "more than any previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to produce a high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD," due to the widespread use of improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity of fighting combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National Guard members and Reservists.
VCS Press Release:
Jan. 11: Victory for Veterans - Judge Rules in Favor of VCS in Case Against VA
Veterans for Common Sense
Jan 11, 2008
January 10, 2008, Washington, DC – The U.S. District Court in San Francisco today handed an enormous victory to veterans who sued the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over lengthy delays for medical care and disability benefits. The Judge’s ruling means our class action lawsuit against VA will move forward, with the first court hearing scheduled for next month.
"We won this round against VA. Veterans will have our day in court. The VA must now release documents under discovery about their deliberate attempts to deny and delay medical care and disability benefits for all veterans, especially our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans," said Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), the lead plaintiff organization that filed suit against VA.
On July 23, 2007, VCS and Veterans United for Truth (VUFT) filed a class action lawsuit against VA in order to force VA to provide prompt and high-quality medical care and disability benefits to veterans, especially those with mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). "Our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are committing suicide while waiting for VA to answer their pleas for medical care. VA must make sure all our veterans receive prompt and high-quality medical care and disability benefits. The long waits at VA must end," added Sullivan.
Shortly after VCS and VUFT filed suit, VA filed a motion to dismiss the case. On December 14, 2007, the U.S. District Court heard oral arguments in the case. On January 10, 2008, the Court ruled against VA and ordered the lawsuit to go to trial. The Court also ruled VA must provide free medical care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for two years. The Court ruling means discovery in the class action lawsuit will begin immediately. The first court date is set for February 22, 2008.
"The February hearing will focus on the VA's failure to provide mandated health care to our nation's veterans, which has lead to an epidemic of suicides by our returning warriors, who have been forced to carry on the battle alone," Sullivan said.
As of October 2007, the Department of Defense had deployed a cumulative total of 1.6 million service members to the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones. Of those, 750,000 are now veterans eligible for VA healthcare and disability benefits. According to VA, more than 264,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have already been treated at VA hospitals. However, of the 52,000 diagnosed by VA with PTSD, only 19,000 are receiving disability compensation for PTSD. According to VA statistics, veterans wait more than six months on average for disability benefit decisions from VA.
VCS is a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, with 12,000 members. VCS focuses on issues related to veterans' healthcare, veterans' benefits, national security, and civil liberties. VCS and VUFT are represented by the law firm Morrison & Foerster, located in San Francisco, California, and by the advocacy group, Disability Rights Advocates, located in Berkeley, California. "This victory for our veterans was possible because of the generous free legal assistance of these two prestigious organizations," Sullivan said.
I am adding an Op-Ed by Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq/Afgan Vet, that he has over at the Huffington Post: Veterans Caught in the Middle Again
And this from todays, 1-12-08, LA Times on Honoring The Fallen: War casualties not forgotten by L.A. parish