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Class-action suit against VA opens

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may paint a rosy picture of improving healthcare for veterans, but the agency has systematically denied benefits to sick veterans and delayed claims so long that many of them commit suicide, a lawyer for two advocacy groups argued in federal court Monday.

“The court faces an agency that is in denial and a healthcare system and an adjudication system that are broken down and in crisis,” said Gordon P. Erspamer, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, in an opening statement in the class-action suit against the VA.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of Veterans for Common Sense, based in Washington, D.C., and Veterans United for Truth, based in Santa Barbara. It does not seek damages, but wants the court to compel the department to improve the care of hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The federal government, which has made few comments on the case since it was filed last July, argued Monday that the processing of veterans’ benefits might take longer than the VA has set as a goal, but the department is not systematically denying care.

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“We’ve heard some pretty dramatic allegations of failures,” said Richard G. Lepley, a lawyer from the Department of Justice who is on the team defending the VA. “The evidence you’ve heard thus far doesn’t support that.”

The lawyers made the opening statements in a marble and wood-paneled courtroom whose rows were filled with about 50 observers, including several veterans. The non-jury trial, being heard by Senior Judge Samuel Conti, is expected to last two weeks.

The veterans’ lawyers displayed new documents on the court’s computer monitors. Included were two e-mails among VA officials conferring about the suicide rate of veterans. The officials said four to five suicides a day and 1,000 attempted suicides a month were occurring among people receiving care from the VA.

One of those e-mails, by Dr. Ira R. Katz, VA deputy chief of the Patient Care Services Office for Mental Health, began with the word, “Shh!”

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The e-mails “show how bad the situation is,” Erspamer said. “They’re keeping it a secret because they’re embarrassed by it.”

Erspamer also said that the VA can take up to 12 to 15 years before it recognizes and compensates a veteran for stress disorder and that when veterans appeal their claims, the courts reverse or send the cases back to VA offices for correction 91% of the time.

Kerri Childress, a VA spokeswoman attending the trial, said the facts presented Monday did not paint a complete picture of veterans’ healthcare. She said the VA has committed itself to providing veterans the best healthcare and giving them the benefits they deserve.

“We’re doing that, maybe not perfectly, but we’re doing our very best,” she said.

For example, she said, the VA has added 3,700 mental health professionals in the last two years.

Bob Handy, 75, chairman of Veterans United for Truth, still was not satisfied.

“If you’re at the bottom of the ocean, anything you do is an improvement,” he said.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com


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