Veterans not entitled to mental health care, U.S. lawyers argue
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Veterans have no legal right to specific types of medical care,
the Bush administration argues in a lawsuit accusing the government of
illegally denying mental health treatment to some troops returning from
Iraq and Afghanistan.
The arguments, filed Wednesday in federal court in San
Francisco, strike at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of veterans
that claims the health care system for returning troops provides little
recourse when the government rejects their medical claims.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is making progress in
increasing its staffing and screening veterans for combat-related
stress, Justice Department lawyers said. But their central argument is
that Congress left decisions about who should get health care, and what
type of care, to the VA and not to veterans or the courts.
A federal law providing five years of care for veterans from the
date of their discharge establishes "veterans' eligibility for health
care, but it does not create an entitlement to any particular medical
service," government lawyers said.
They said the law entitles veterans only to "medical care which
the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) determines is needed, and only to
the extent funds ... are available."
The argument drew a sharp retort from a lawyer for advocacy
groups that sued the government in July. The suit is a proposed class
action on behalf of 320,000 to 800,000 veterans or their survivors.
"Veterans need to know in this country that the government
thinks all their benefits are mere gratuities," attorney Gordon Erspamer
said. "They're saying it's completely discretionary, that even if
Congress appropriates money for veterans' health care, we can do
anything we want with it."
The issue will be joined March 7 at a hearing before U.S.
District Judge Samuel Conti, who denied the administration's request
last month to dismiss the suit. While the case is pending, the
plaintiffs want Conti to order the government to provide immediate
mental health treatment for veterans who say they are thinking of
killing themselves and to spend another $60 million on health care.
The suit accuses the VA of arbitrarily denying care and benefits
to wounded veterans, of forcing them to wait months for treatment and
years for benefits, and of failing to provide fair procedures for
appealing decisions against them.
The plaintiffs say that the department has a backlog of more
than 600,000 disability claims and that 120 veterans a week commit
In his Jan. 10 ruling that allowed the suit to proceed, Conti
said federal law entitles veterans to health care for a specific period
after leaving the service, rejecting the government's argument that it
was required to provide only as much care as the VA's budget allowed in
a given year. A law that President Bush signed last week extended the
period from two to five years.
In its latest filing, however, the Justice Department reiterated
that Congress had intended "to authorize, but not require, medical care
"This court should not interfere with the political branches'
design, oversight and modification of VA programs," the government
They also said the VA "is making great progress in addressing
the mental health care needs of combat veterans." Among other things,
they cited a law passed in November that required the department to
establish a suicide-prevention program that includes making mental
health care available around the clock.
The VA has hired nearly 3,800 mental health professionals in the
last two years and has at least one specialist in post-traumatic stress
disorder at each of its medical centers, the government said.
Since June, government lawyers said, the VA has had a policy
that all veterans who seek or are referred for mental health care should
be screened within 24 hours, that those found to be at risk of suicide
should be treated immediately, and that others should be scheduled for
full diagnosis and treatment planning within two weeks. A new
suicide-prevention hot line has been responsible for "more than 380
rescues," the lawyers said.
Erspamer, the plaintiffs' lawyer, was unimpressed.
"Nowhere do I see any explanation of what kind of systems they
have in place that deal with suicidal veterans," he said. "There's no
excuse for not spending the money Congress told them to spend on mental
health care and leaving $60 million on the table when people are going
out and killing themselves."
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com
This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco
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