Is the VA ignoring suicidal veterans?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing enough to prevent suicide and provide adequate medical care for Americans who have served in the armed forces, a class-action lawsuit that goes to trial this week charges.

The lawsuit, filed in July by two nonprofit groups representing military veterans, accuses the agency of inadequately addressing a “rising tide” of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.

But 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.

The trial is set to begin Monday in a San Francisco federal court.

An average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day, and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide, according to a December e-mail between top VA officials that was filed as part of the federal lawsuit.

“That failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides,” the veterans groups wrote in court papers filed Thursday.

A study released this week by the RAND Corp. estimates 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.

“We find that the VA has simply not devoted enough resources,” said Gordon Erspamer, the lawyer representing the veterans groups. “They don’t have enough psychiatrists.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the VA takes too long to pay disability claims and that its internal appellate process unconstitutionally denies veterans their right to take their complaints to court.

The groups are asking U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, to order the VA to drastically overhaul its system. Conti is hearing the trial without a jury.

“What I would like to see from the VA is that they actually treat patients with respect,” said Bob Handy, head of the Veterans United for Truth, one of the groups suing the agency.

Handy, 76, who retired from the Navy in 1970, said he founded the veterans group in 2004 after hearing myriad complaints from veterans about their treatment at the VA when he was a member of the Veterans Caucus of the state Democratic Party. The department acknowledges in court papers that it takes on average about 180 days to decide whether to approve a disability claim.

“I would just like to see the VA do the honorable thing,” said Handy, who is expected to testify during the weeklong trial.

Justice Department spokeswoman Carrie Nelson declined comment Friday.

But government lawyers have filed court papers arguing that the courts have no authority to tell the VA how to operate and no business wading into the everyday management of a sprawling medical network that includes 153 medical centers nationwide.

The veterans are asking the judge “to administer the programs of the second largest Cabinet-level agency, a task for which Congress and the executive branch are better suited,” government lawyers wrote in court papers.

If the judge ordered an overhaul, he would be responsible for such things as employees workloads, hours of operations, facility locations, the number of medical professionals employed, and “even the decision whether to offer individual or group therapy to patients with” post-traumatic stress, the papers said.

The VA also said it is besieged with an unprecedented number of claims, which have grown from 675,000 in 2001 to 838,000 in 2007. The rise is prompted not from the current war, but from veterans growing older, government lawyers said.

“The largest component of these new claims is the aging veteran population of the Vietnam and Cold War eras,” the government filing stated. “As they age, older veterans may lose employment-related health care, prompting them to seek VA benefits for the first time.”

Government lawyers in their filings defended its average claims processing time as “reasonable,” given that it has to prove the veterans disability was incurred during service time.

They also noted the VA will spend $3.8 billion for fiscal year 2008 on mental health and announced a policy in June that requires all medical centers to have mental health staff available all the time to provide urgent care. They said that “suicide prevention is a singular priority for the VA.”

The VA “has hired over 3,700 new mental health professionals in the last two and a half years, bringing the total number of mental health professionals within VA to just under 17,000. This hiring effort continues,” they said.


  1. Sandra Price

    We should immediately bring our long term Iraqi troops home! We had our troops in the war theater for much shorter terms during WW2. During Vietnam they were extended and treated badly when they got home. Our White House has little concern for the welfare of our mental and physical health and uses our soldiers as if they were only pieces in a board game.

    There is a limit to what the human mind/brain can take and we have seen the results of violent television and games on our little kids. They turn violent as teenagers.

    When a child is programmed with violence and war surrounding them, they are filled with this already and when they meet it on the battlefield, they will snap. We all saw this after Vietnam with wandering vets in our parks overdosing on drugs to get away from reality. I did an art show in my bookstore for many vets from Big Sur to give them exposure. Blood, gore and body parts all on canvas. Their chances of a normal live completely gone.

  2. bryan mcclellan

    18 per day who have government health care are taking their lives. Lets hear the candidates debate this! Slow pay ,no pay, and denial of benefits would push nearly anyone over the edge. Now service members also have the fear of inclusion in a data base where only numbers exist and the human equation becomes three tiered, nuts, nuttier, and nuttiest. Surrender your rights because you served your country (Vets disarmament bill) but things are a little fuzzier than they used to be.

    All this you receive for asking why am I here and how do I cope.

    The experience has you so at odds with reality that you could use some counseling, but in the process the truth is revealed that you are no longer an asset to your country but a burden on it because your government is there to serve itself, not the individual. Then you are put on the back burner in hopes that you will give up and just go away resolving your problems on your own.

    They are stacking up like cord wood Uncle Sam.

    This proves to me that I surely don’t want our federal bean counters administrating a universal health coverage plan.

  3. Jenifer D.

    Disability denied

    The VA are nothing, but, a bunch of tight-fisted pencil-pushers who are directed to do whatever it takes to avoid compensating veterans for their disabilities. Aren’t these the same idiots that ‘lost’ the personal information of thousands of veterans last year? I have not heard anything about the outcome on that, have you?

  4. Kim Scipes


    I was with you til your last line: “This proves to me that I surely don’t want our federal bean counters administering a universal health coverage plan.”

    You seem to have fallen into Reagan’s crap: “The government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.”

    Folks, the reality is that there are some things the government does well, and somethings it does terribly. When anyone tells you there is a simple answer to a complex problem, you should know automatically you’re getting gamed. THERE ARE NO SIMPLE ANSWERS FOR COMPLEX PROBLEMS. Period.

    The biggest problem is that our political system is broke. The government, supposedly intended to serve our people, doesn’t: unless you have a whole lot of money and/or you have a corporation working for the same goal. Once someone gets high up in any hierarchy, they can get away with almost anything–unless they cost stockholders a lot of money.

    The larger problem is that there is no one representing ordinary folks in our government. And, along with that, there is no one that is able to hold those in authority accountable (as supposedly the “checks and balances” system was thought to do). So, we have the Dems refusing to impeach Bush and his cronies for their multiple crimes.

    Combined with that, our media system is both corrupt and allows itself to be corrupted. See today’s story on how the military generals who have appeared on “TV” as supposedly honest consultants really were nothing more than shills for the Pentagon.

    And at the same time, our economy is imploding, and is much worse than anyone is letting on publicly.

    The biggest problem is that most Americans have sat back and played with their navels instead of thinking critically about what they’ve been told, and seeking answers. Instead, we get upset about some pastor’s sermons or whose wearing a flag lapel pin.

    We have been taught that this country is “exceptional,” and that we’re doing nothing but good in the world. While American individuals have often done good in the world, our government has done some good and much bad in the world–as perhaps the Vietnamese and Iraqis have noticed.

    This IS a wonderful country. But much of our wonderfulness occurs because we’ve ripped off other countries and appropriated the goodies for ourselves. The US has overthrown democratically-elected governments (for example: Iran in 1953; Guatemala in 1954; Brazil in 1964; Chile in 1973), and it tried to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela in 2002. We’ve supposed dictators around the world–including in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Zaire, Chile (after the 1973 coup), Brazil (after the 1964 coup), etc., etc.–all the time while piously claiming to support “democracy” around the world.

    What I’m trying to point out is that we need to understand that the United States is one country of the world, and not the only one; that what we do around the world is related to what’s happening inside the US; and that our “leaders” efforts to dominate the world is disemboweling the good things of our country.

    And this current VA crisis shows this in no uncertain terms. We send young men and women into a war that should not have ever taken place, where they face people who vigorously resent our invasion/occupation and where US troops end up doing terrible things to Iraqis–again, see the Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan panels on –and then, when the troops come home and have to live with what they have done, the VA gives them little or no help, it is beyond obscene: it is criminal.

    But most Americans don’t really care what’s happening to our military beyond placing those stupid yellow ribbons on their SUVs. The Pentagon learned from Vietnam, developed an “all-volunteer” military that is fueled by economic devastation in the inner cities and rural areas where many poor whites live, and has gagged the media (which has allowed itself to be gagged, as the media has supported Bush’s wars), and most Americans don’t care as long as their shopping trips to the mall are interfered with.

    So, this will pass in a couple of days. After all, there is another news cycle. And most Americans still won’t care.

    It makes me sick. As an American and as a USMC vet (1969-73) who learned about the US Empire through examining what happened to me and my generation.


  5. Jenifer D.

    Direct Questions

    That require direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers are not being asked often enough. These hacks in office are supposed to work for US, it’s time we as voters sent them numerous reminders of that fact. I say the young mothers out there can get involved by recycling those ‘disposable’ diapers they’ve been throwing away by boxing them up and sending them to their respective state’s representatives (Don’t put a return address, they might try to send it back) as a message of how the voters feel about them and their lack of action. The message? “You stink”.

  6. sherry

    Truth is ugly. If goverment doesn’t treat suicidal vets, they save a lot of money.
    It’s disgusting, but I see it every day.

  7. Ted Remington

    Sometimes I get ill reading what flows out of people’s computers and ends up on these comment pages. This is another one of those times.

    The screams from everywhere are: The Government sucks. I want less government. Government employees are leeches. Politicians are nothing but crooks who want to feather their own nests.

    So when they DO provide less government you scream, No, NOT that part. We need more money there.

    The VA is a case in point. You expect the employees to do more and more with less and less resources.

    The government is NOT the problem. They are doing what you provide them authority to do. YOU are the government. The first three words of the Constitution are WE THE PEOPLE.

    Sandra, my ire on this one is directed at you in particular. You told us in another comment that you don’t vote. Well if you don’t care enough to get up and go down to the polling station to vote then you have not one damned iota of a right to complain when things go wrong. Sorry to be blunt; perhaps because my rabbit died I’m having a bad hare day.

    If you want the VA to help give them the tools to do the job with. But remember that means one of two things, cutting somewhere else or raising taxes.


  8. Sandra Price

    Ted, I said I had no candidate. I haven’t voted for a Republican since 1988. My problem is with everyone wanting to hand the government controls over our corporations, controls over our medical health care and even controls over our social habits.

    You must be new here, or my name should ring a bell for coming out and supporting some of the most unpopular candidates ever on the ballot. Take your ire to someone else. No one has been as politically motivated as I have been since Ike. I was a poll inspector in two states and helped blind people in Arizona.

    My problem is that I learned that a limited government is the most honest. I was behind Goldwater for years and then worked for Reagan for Governor of California. I put on fund raisers for both candidates. In 1992 I drove down to Santa Barbara to meet and interview H. Ross Perot. I backed him for two elections.

    Ted, if you can find a single good candidate running in November cough him up! I know exactly how my House members have voted in 2 states. I attend political conventions all over the USA. But in 2008, I have no candidate and will have to write in P.J. O’Roark again and again.

    In my day, when your rabbit died, it meant you were pregnant! So I forgive you for your critical words.