Friday, August 17, 2007

Veterans Sue Government Over Mental Health Services

Veterans Sue Government Over Mental Health Services

By Aaron Glantz
Updated Aug 13, 2007, 12:35 am

(IPS/GIN) - Two veterans groups sued the Department of Veterans Affairs Monday for alleged "shameful failures" to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The lawsuit, which was filed by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, seeks to be a nationwide class-action suit on behalf of an estimated 320,000 to 800,000 post-9/11 vets with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is commonly known as PTSD. The groups sued the department in federal court in San Francisco.

The VA's motto, which was taken from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

Melissa Kasnitz, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, said that "instead of living up to this motto, the VA is abandoning disabled veterans and following a path that will lead to broken lives, homelessness and staggering social costs." Kasnitz's group is one of the organizations that prepared the lawsuit.

At issue is what veterans say is a VA bureaucracy that keeps former soldiers from receiving the care they need.

For example, of the 1,400 VA hospitals and clinics scattered across the United States, only 27 have inpatient programs for PTSD. An estimated 38 percent of soldiers and 50 percent of National Guard who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan report mental health issues ranging from post-combat stress to brain injuries.

The VA also has a backlog of more than 600,000 disability claims, and the average Iraq war veteran who files for disability must wait six months for an answer. If he or she files an appeal, it could take up to three years.

"The Department of Defense went to war in Iraq. They hired hundreds of thousands of extra soldiers from the Guard and Reserve to make the military larger so that they could do the invasion of Iraq," said Paul Sullivan, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

"However, the Department of Veterans Affairs, they didn't hire more doctors and they didn't hire more bureaucrats to help them with their paperwork so what you have now is a failure of the government to prepare for the return of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

The situation is likely to worsen as the war goes on, and as more active duty soldiers become veterans.

Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, who authored the most comprehensive study available on the needs of the VA system, estimated that veterans will further strain the system by filing 214,000 disability claims next year.

It's a problem that had already caught the eye of a federal judge even before veterans filed the suit on Monday.

"There are ominous signs that veterans' cases that may require case-by-case adjudication will soon increase, and probably very sharply," Federal Appeals Court Judge Paul Michel said June 28. "They could swamp our court by year's end. The Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims just received more filings than in any other two-quarter period in its history. The impact on our court ... could be catastrophic."

For its part, the VA refused to answer questions about the lawsuit, but it did release a statement in response to it.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to meeting the needs of our latest generation of heroes," the statement said. "Through outreach efforts, the VA ensures returning Global War on Terror service members have access to the widely recognized quality health care they have earned, including prosthetics and mental health care. VA has also given priority handling to their monetary disability benefits claims."

But in their lawsuit, veterans groups say the VA bureaucracy in Washington has exerted pressure on local officials to deny valid claims or deliberately underrate the severity of disabilities in an effort to save money. At the same time, VA officials have not asked Congress for more money.

Paul Sullivan from Veterans for Common Sense used to monitor disability claims for the VA. Last year, however, he resigned in protest.

"In 2005, while working at VA, I briefed senior VA political leaders that VA was in a crisis of a surge of disability claims of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans," he said. "I recommended in writing that the VA hire more claims processors to make sure the veterans get their benefits faster instead of facing six-month delays or even longer."

"The VA didn't do anything to help the veterans. What the VA actually did was several things to lock the doors and block veterans from getting mental health assistance from VA," Sullivan said.

In their lawsuit, the veterans groups are asking the federal courts to force the VA to clear the backlog of disability claims and make sure that returning veterans receive immediate medical and psychological help. They also want the judge to force the VA to screen all vets returning from combat to identify those at greatest risk for PTSD and suicide.

An estimated 400,000 veterans sleep homeless on the streets of the United States. The VA estimates that 1,000 former service members under its care commit suicide every year.

Copyright 2007 FCN Publishing,

Aug 16, 4:23 AM EDT

Army suicides highest in 26 years

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Army soldiers committed suicide last year at the highest rate in 26 years, and more than a quarter did so while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new military report.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its scheduled release Thursday, found there were 99 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers during 2006, up from 88 the previous year and the highest number since the 102 suicides in 1991 at the time of the Persian Gulf War.

The suicide rate for the Army has fluctuated over the past 26 years, from last year's high of 17.3 per 100,000 to a low of 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.

Last year, "Iraq was the most common deployment location for both (suicides) and attempts," the report said.

The 99 suicides included 28 soldiers deployed to the two wars and 71 who weren't. About twice as many women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide as did women not sent to war, the report said.

Preliminary numbers for the first half of this year indicate the number of suicides could decline across the service in 2007 but increase among troops serving in the wars, officials said.

The increases for 2006 came as Army officials worked to set up a number of new and stronger programs for providing mental health care to a force strained by the longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the global counterterrorism war entering its sixth year.

Failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and the stress of their jobs were factors motivating the soldiers to commit suicide, according to the report.

"In addition, there was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and number of days deployed" in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops are participating in the war effort, it said. The same pattern seemed to hold true for those who not only attempted, but succeeded in killing themselves.

There also "was limited evidence to support the view that multiple ... deployments are a risk factor for suicide behaviors," it said.

About a quarter of those who killed themselves had a history of at least one psychiatric disorder. Of those, about 20 percent had been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder and/or depression; and 8 percent had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, including post traumatic stress disorder - one of the signature injuries of the conflict in Iraq.

Firearms were the most common method of suicide. Those who attempted suicide but didn't succeed tended more often to take overdoses and cut themselves.

In a service of more than a half million troop, the 99 suicides amounted to a rate of 17.3 per 100,000 - the highest in the past 26 years, the report said. The average rate over those years has been 12.3 per 100,000.

The rate for those serving in the wars stayed about the same, 19.4 per 100,000 in 2006, compared with 19.9 in 2005.

The Army said the information was compiled from reports collected as part of its suicide prevention program - reports required for all "suicide-related behaviors that result in death, hospitalization or evacuation" of the soldier. It can take considerable time to investigate a suicide and, in fact, the Army said that in addition to the 99 confirmed suicides last year, there are two other deaths suspected as suicides in which investigations were pending.

Associated Press reporter Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report from Washington.

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