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Veterans Groups to Appeal Judge's Decision Over VA's Treatment of PTSD Cases

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Also published at my website, The Public Record. 

A federal Judge has ruled that he lacks the legal authority to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to immediately treat war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could not order the VA to overhaul its internal systems that handle benefits claims and medical services.

Two veterans advocacy groups, Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth, filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the VA last year claiming a systematic breakdown at the agency had led to an epidemic of suicides among war veterans.

The lawsuit claimed that some war veterans were turned away from VA hospitals after they sought care for PTSD and later committed suicide. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. Mental health experts have described PTSD as an event of overwhelming magnitude in which a victim's nervous system is afflicted with intense fear, helplessness and horror. The victim shuts down only to re-experience the traumatic event over and over again. Studies have shown that PTSD is the most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat.

Moreover, the complaint alleged, that a massive backlog of benefits claims had led to serious financial hardships among hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Those claims were borne to some extent by evidence that surfaced during the course of a three-week trial earlier this year.

Additionally, the lawsuit exposed the extent to which the VA went to conceal that information from the public. The federal lawsuit resulted in congressional hearings about the issue and led members of Congress to call for the resignation of several top VA officials.

In an 82-page ruling issued on June 25, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti said that while it is “clear to the court” that “the VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s veterans...the court cannot find systemic violations system-wide that would compel district court intervention.”

Conti wrote that the appropriate parties to address the matter are “Congress, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the adjudication system within the VA, and the Federal Circuit.”

“The remedies sought by Plaintiffs are beyond the power of this Court and would call for a complete overhaul of the VA system, something clearly outside of this Court's jurisdiction,” Conti wrote in his ruling. "VCS plans to appeal the Court’s decision primarily on the grounds that the Judicial Branch must enforce the laws of the Legislative Branch ignored by the Executive Branch."

“The remedies to the problems, deficiencies, delays and inadequacies complained of are not within the jurisdiction of this Court. Congress has bestowed district courts with limited jurisdiction. Congress has specifically precluded district courts from reviewing veterans' benefits decisions and has entrusted decisions regarding veterans' medical care to the discretion of the VA Secretary. The broad injunctive relief that Plaintiffs request is outside the scope of this Court's jurisdiction,” he added.

Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Veterans for Common Sense, said his organization and Veterans United for Truth would immediately appeal the ruling.

“This ruling will only cause us to redouble our efforts and our pursuit of justice for our nation’s veterans,” Sullivan said. “We will not rest until our job is finished.”

Gordon Erspramer, the lead attorney representing the veterans advocacy groups, said if the decision is upheld on appeal it “would suggest that veterans have no enforceable rights in America, and the Constitution does not apply to veterans.”

“For all Americans, the implications of this decision are profoundly disturbing,” Erspamer said.

Sullivan said that as of June 2008, the VA has diagnosed 75,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD, but the agency has only been providing disability benefits covering the diagnosis to 37,000 veterans.

Early warnings ignored, Congress Slow to Act

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)
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