VA Sued Over Mental Health Care Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates allege that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to provide timely mental health treatment for returning veterans. It describes a backlog of 600,000 claims for vets seeking care — some dating all the way back to the Vietnam War.
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VA Sued Over Mental Health Care

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VA Sued Over Mental Health Care

VA Sued Over Mental Health Care

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, we get an update on the flooding in the Midwest. People there are trying to decide whether to stay and sandbag or flee to higher ground.

COHEN: First, though, a recent study by the RAN Corporation found that nearly one out of every five troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan is suffering from traumatic brain injury, depression, or post traumatic stress disorder.

The quality of mental health care for veterans is now at the heart of a class action suit in San Francisco. The plaintiffs in the case say there's a huge backlog of medical claims at the veteran's administration. A federal judge is expected to rule as soon as today. A member station KQED, Scott Shafer reports.

SCOTT SHAFER: In June of 2001, Barbra Serrano's(ph) son Sean(ph) joined the Marines. He was sent to Iraq and in 2004, found himself in Fallujah in some of the war's fiercest fighting.

Ms. BARBRA SERRANO: He has told me that that was the worst place he's ever been. It was the closest thing to hell he could think of.

SHAFER: One day, while driving through the streets of Fallujah, an explosion rocked a building near his vehicle, severely injuring his right arm and elbow. Before retiring from the Marines, he was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. When he returned home to Minnesota, Serrano says Sean couldn't sleep. He'd just sit and stare.

Ms. SERRANO: He can't remember anything, and he's afraid to go outside. And then he goes to the VA, and they won't help him. They just don't follow up. They don't have time for him.

SHAFER: Serrano's son was eventually prescribed sleeping pills, but in a sworn declaration, Serrano says the VA never offered him any psychological counseling. Stories like that fueled a law suit filed against the VA last July by two veteran's organizations. The class action suit is the first of its kind, alleging that the VA's mental health system was unprepared for the tidal wave of care needed by vets and is yet to catch up.

Mr. SID WOLINSKY (Cofounder, Disability Rights Advocates): It's actually much worse than we expected.

SHAFER: Sid Wolinsky at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley is one of the plaintiff's attorneys. He says the lawsuit has helped expose the magnitude of mental health problems recent vets are having and shortcomings in the VA's response. ..TEXT: Mr. WOLINSKY: They had a suicide prevention plan, a strategic mental health plan that's pretty good that they devised five years ago, and here we are five years later, and it's still not implemented.

SHAFER: At a two week trial in San Francisco, attorneys for the VA disputed that characterization. They say they've added nearly 4,000 psychologists, nurses, social workers, and counselors in the past two years. The defense says the VA continues ramping up, with additions like a toll-free suicide-prevention hotline. Outside the court room, VA spokeswoman Kerri Childress put it this way.

Ms. KERRI CHILDRESS (Spokeswoman, Veterans' Association): Since we have learned that there has been this big increase in PTSD and mental health needs, we absolutely have responded and increased. You are asking me is it enough? Don't know.

SHAFER: A recent RAND Corporation study found that nearly 20 percent of military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. That rate increases with multiple deployments.

During the course of the trial, internal VA emails surfaced, including one from a VA psychologist suggesting that clinicians refrain from diagnosing vets with PTSD to save money. The agency's Kerri Childress says the physician was disciplined.

Ms. CHILDRESS: I can say without any doubt she did not represent what the vast majority, or what VA really represents, and what VA stands for.

SHAFER: The issue has gotten the attention of San Diego Democrat Bob Filner, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): The suicide rate right now is back to where it was with the Vietnam era. So you have all this stuff going on, which is very, very tragic and in my mind, criminal.

SHAFER: Congressman Filner says the trial in San Francisco has uncovered information his committee has tried to get from the VA for years. The veterans suing the VA want U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti to ensure that all vets who need mental health care can get it. They are also asking for a quick resolution to hundreds of thousands of medical claims now pending before the agency. Plaintiffs' attorney Sid Wolinsky.

Mr. WOLINSKY: This is a decision that can save lives, and so what we hope to see out of this decision is a different approach, in which we give these veterans the respect and care they need and deserve.

SHAFER: Whatever the ruling, the trial has already prompted the Bush administration, Congress, and the VA to pay closer attention to the issues plaintiffs in this case have raised. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

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