VA urges dismissal of health care lawsuit
By PAUL ELIAS Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 04/21/2008 01:42:21 PM PDT
SAN FRANCISCO—A government lawyer on Monday urged a judge to dismiss a lawsuit charging the Department of Veterans Affairs with failing to properly treat thousands of veterans for mental illness, saying the VA runs a "world class" medical care system.
In opening statements of the trial, veterans' lawyers painted a diverging portrait of the system, one in which suicides and suicide attempts are rising at alarming rates because of VA incompetence and recalcitrance to address the issue.
Two veterans groups have joined in a class-action lawsuit against a sprawling VA system that handled a record 838,000 claims last year. U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti is hearing the case in a two-week trial, without a jury.
Justice Department lawyer Richard Lepley argued Monday that the VA has responded to the unprecedented number of claims, which officials say is being driven by aging Vietnam veterans and other warriors of the Cold War era, by launching a massive new hiring process.
Lepley told the judge that the VA has added more than 3,700 new "mental health physicians" to a mental health professional staff of 17,000 that treats increasing cases if post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems in the last year.
"We are staffing up," Lepley said. "We can't do it overnight."
Government lawyers say the VA has been devoting more resources to mental health and making suicide prevention a top priority. They also argue that the courts don't have the authority to tell the department how it should operate.
Earlier in the morning, veterans lawyer Gordon Erspamer told the judge that the VA isn't doing enough, calling for the judge to order a massive overhaul of how the VA processes claims and perhaps hire a "special master" to preside over the agency.
Erspamer cited a RAND Corp. report released last week estimating that 300,000 U.S. troops—about 20 percent of those deployed—are suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Erspamer showed the judge two e-mails written last year among high-ranking officials that said an average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day—and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide. Another e-mail said 1,000 veterans under VA care attempt suicide each month.
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