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22 April 2008

Shh! Each year, 12,000 veterans try to kill themselves while under Department of Veterans Affairs care.

The federal agency tasked with the medical care and well-being of U.S. military veterans is the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs, formerly the Veterans Administration.

Veterans may sue the VA/DVA. But by law dating to the agency's founding after the Civil War (1861-1865), lawyers representing veterans against the VA/DVA may receive a maximum compensation of One Dollar. So there have almost never been substantive lawsuits on behalf of veterans against the VA/DVA.

Although the VA has had its high moments of discharging its responsibilities, these have been rare. Usually the VA is led and staffed by political hacks -- typically whichever jerk heads the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars and is willing to kiss White House ass -- who have subjected veterans to substandard, inadequate medical care.

The U.S. government's treatment of veterans has, after most wars, been roughly comparable to its treatment of Native Americans. Sometimes, as in the administration of President Warren Harding shortly after World War One, the VA has descended into abominable and notorious criminal fraud and scandal.

This New York Times article speaks for itself, there's not much I can add to this grotesque national shame.

But it describes a historically remarkable effort to force the DVA to do its job decently and responsively. Specifically, veterans are asking a federal judge to appoint a Master, independent of the federal bureaucracy, to supervise the DVA's services and medical care to veterans.

My military service was safe and uneventful, and I have been remarkably lucky in never having had to depend on the Veterans Administration for much.

Other veterans who have really needed important medical and psychiatric care for their service-caused troubles haven't been nearly as lucky as I've been.

After the article, a quick e-mail I sent off to the lead lawyer for the veteran plaintiffs, Gordon P. Erspamer. His biography on his law firm's website says he received his J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree from the University of Michigan.

Go Blue! I didn't go there, but I've finally visited it, and it's every bit the great school I always heard it was, regularly spewing out great people who do great things.


The New York Times
Tuesday 22 April 2008

In Federal Suit, 2 Views
of Veterans’ Health Care

by Neil MacFarquhar

SAN FRANCISCO, California -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to meet the skyrocketing demand for medical services as an unanticipated flood of former soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan seek help along with a parallel surge of claims from aging Vietnam veterans, according to both sides in a trial that opened Monday in federal court here.

The lawsuit was brought by two groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, seeking to force the government to streamline its procedures for treating former soldiers, particularly those suffering from combat trauma and other mental health problems.

Opening arguments painted sharply different pictures of the department’s success. The veterans groups said the department was ignoring a mental health crisis and was so swamped that former soldiers were dying needlessly. The defense countered that the country’s largest medical care system was adding the personnel needed to cope.

“Our ultimate goal is guaranteed health care, timely health care, timely decisions on disability payments,” Gordon P. Erspamer, the lead lawyer representing the two veterans groups, said in an interview.

“The system is choking on the claims; the delays are unconscionable,” Mr. Erspamer said.

The trial, before Judge Samuel Conti, an Army veteran of World War II, does not seek monetary damages but asks the court to appoint a special master or otherwise intervene to make the department run more efficiently.

Claims for help from the department jumped 25 percent in recent years, hitting 838,000, Richard G. Lepley said in his opening statement for the government.

The defense said the jump was generated by a combination of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, where head injuries that can lead to stress problems are a signature issue, as well as an upswing of Vietnam veterans seeking help for medical conditions associated with aging. News coverage from the current wars has also led to new mental health problems among Vietnam veterans, said Kerri J. Childress, a spokeswoman for the veterans department in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea how long the war was going to go on,” Ms. Childress said, referring to Iraq. She added that there was no way to fully anticipate the demand for medical care from Vietnam veterans.

The department is falling short of its goal of addressing claims within 125 days, saying that it was now closer to 180 to 185 days, Mr. Lepley said. But he said the department had added 3,700 mental health care professionals in the last two years, bringing the total to 17,000, and started a program where anyone feeling suicidal could get attention within 24 hours and a follow-up appointment within two weeks, he said. The program started last summer, he said, so it is too new to measure its effectiveness.

Over all, there are 6,600 suicides per year among the 25 million veterans of all wars, representing about one in five suicides in the country, Ms. Childress said. There are an estimated 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the 7,800,000 veterans treated by Veterans Affairs, she said. The suicides tend to be more frequent among older veterans, she said, citing statistics from data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number — 126 suicides a week, higher than the 120 published in previous studies — was in a December e-mail message from Dr. Ira Katz, the head of mental health services for Veterans Affairs, to Dr. Michael J. Kussman, the under secretary for the Veterans Health Administration in the department. Mr. Erspamer displayed the message in his opening argument.

The department has long been reluctant to release specific numbers regarding suicides or suicide attempts, lawyers for the veterans groups said. “We certainly think there was a cover-up in some sense,” said Heather Moser, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

A second department e-mail message from Dr. Katz shown at the trial starts with “Shh!” and refers to the 12,000 veterans per year who attempt suicide while under department treatment. “Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” it asks.

- 30 -

Mr. Gordon P. Erspamer, Esq.
Senior Counsel
Morrison Foerster

Dear Mr. Erspamer,

Thank you for representing veterans seeking responsive and responsible health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In August 1945, at the end of World War Two, President Truman appointed General Omar Bradley to lead the Veterans Administration. It was the clearest message that the nation's priority was its best efforts to heal our veterans and to re-integrate them fully and successfully into civilian society, and that the nation acknowledged that those who had served deserved nothing less.

Your willingness to represent veterans against the DVA with zeal and excellence is an event of historic significance. I wish you and your colleagues the best success in this case. I cannot adequately express how important it is to our veterans, to the nation, and personally to me.

Go Blue.

Yours sincerely,

Bob Merkin

SP5 US Army 1969-1971
Army Commendation Medal

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