Tales of the VA, Part Three: A Landmark Win

The Air Force Overseas Ribbon

On May 11, a sweeping landmark decision was made in favor of Veterans who have been languishing in the disastrous Veterans Administration Claims processing system.  This landmark decision has generated all of three pages of Google Results and little more than a thousand news articles.

The media just does not get it, so we will:

Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote an opinion that held nothing back as it blasted the US Veterans Administration (VA) for everything from long-term incompetence to cover ups. 

The lawsuit was an appeal of a disastrous 2008 lawsuit. That lawsuit was decided after information about veteran’s suicide rates was deliberately withheld by the VA’s top Mental Health Official.

Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United For Truth were the dual plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  The legal team was headed by Morrison & Foerster and Disability Rights Advocates lead attorneys Gordon Erspamer and Sid Wolinsky.   

Judge Reinhardt specifically attacked a “mental health care system and disability claims system remain badly broken, and veterans face long delays to see doctors and obtain benefits.”

The court ordered the VA to fix problems that were described as “egregious” in a finding that stretches to 104 pages.  In even stronger language, the court referred to “unchecked incompetence” that has gone on for many years. 

“VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or to perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.”

The court acknowledges that, as early as 2001, the VA had not only no budget for the rise in claims from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the VA had no plan for handling the increase. But even today, the VA still has no strategic plan for the rising number of cases or for the pile of backlogged cases.

An elusive little rumor came out in April that, without informing veterans who have pending claims, the VA might have shut down claims processing until June, and possibly until August.

 

THE 2008 TRIAL

In many mental health and other cases, the veteran died or committed suicide without ever seeing any benefits. More than a thousand died with untreated mental health conditions in the course of a few months before the 2008 VA trial was completed. Those veterans were turned away by the VA when they requested care.

Two groups: Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth, filed the lawsuit and sought class-action status against the VA.

The two veterans groups claimed that “…a systematic breakdown at the agency had led to an epidemic of suicides among war veterans,”.

Also, the groups stated that “…a massive backlog of benefits claims had led to serious financial hardships among hundreds of thousands of veterans, ”

The plaintiffs also discussed the extensive efforts made by the VA to cover up the whole issue.

In late June, 2008, according to The Public Record, U.S. District Court Judge and Nixon appointee  Samuel Conti gave an 82 page ruling 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.”

There was a problem at that time. Evidence of veterans suicides had been covered up. 

DR IRA KATZ AND THE 2008 EVIDENCE COVERUP SCANDAL

Dr Katz was the VA’s top Mental Health official. During 2008. Dr Katz wrote several memos that clearly called for covering up, making broad denials and for keeping quiet about 1,000 suicides and deaths of soldiers who had been denied treatment.

As a result, it is not difficult to see why the federal court in 2008 ruled that there were no “systematic violations…”.

In early 2009, CBS News obtained the Katz internal VA e-mails and blew the cover off of the coverup. Dr Katz had not only clearly minimized or hidden the suicide risks of denying veterans their mental health care, he ordered others to do the same.

That CBS report In  led to Senators Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii to call for the resignation of Dr. Katz, the VA’s top official for mental health. Tom Harkin, D-IA wanted everyone who was involved in the coverup to be fired.

Paul Sullivan is the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. He said that  his organization and Veterans United for Truth would immediately appeal the ruling.

 

NOW: THE RESULTS OF VETERANS FOR COMMON SENSE V. ERIC K. SHINSEKI, 08-16728

On May 11, 2011, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case of VETERANS FOR COMMON SENSE v. ERIC K. SHINSEKI.

Circuit court judges Procter Hug, Jr. and Stephen Reinhardt were in favor of the ruling. Judge Reinhardt wrote the opinion.   Judges Reinhardt and Hug were Carter appointees.

In the only dissent, Reagan appointee Chief Justice Alex Kozinski said that the majority had overstepped its constitutional authority and “…hijacked the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health treatment and disability compensation programs and installed a district judge as reluctant commander-in-chief,”

WHAT THIS MEANS

This is a landmark ruling and is the first time in recent history that veterans can hope that the Ninth Circuit or some higher court can force the VA to end the long history of incompetence, to stop the unjustified delays and never-ending excuses, and to get returning and older veterans their treatment, whether for mental illness or for any other form of service connected illness.


The American People have a contract with us. The American People have to stop weaseling out of the contract. Otherwise, this new fad of saying that  “We thank you for your service” will become just another irritant and insult instead of an expression of true gratitude.


For the first time, an agency of the Federal Government has done something and we all need to follow this case. This may be the only way to reform or to repair the politics and the bad high level decisions that lie behind the Veterans Administration claims and benefits processing disaster. 


FOR THE FULL TEXT

For the full text in PDF and under the publication of the United States Courts for the Ninth Circuit.

FOR A GOOD SUMMARY BY VETERANS FOR COMMON SENSE

For an excellent summary of the trial and ruling at Veterans for Common Sense.

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