Administration Lawyers: Veterans "Not Entitled" to Mental Health Care
> 2/8/2008 12:45:44 PM

Arguing against a lawsuit accusing the United States government of negligence in failing to provide sufficient mental health treatment to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawyers for the current administration posit that, while veterans have the right to receive health care in a very nebulous sense, they are "not entitled" to "specific types" of treatment. The "specific type" of treatment in question is that relating to any and all mental health conditions. This declaration is absolutely unacceptable and further discredits the standard "Support the Troops" mantra; it would seem that officials in the upper levels of our government have simply stopped trying to earn the good graces of the public, including those who've often made personal sacrifices to serve our country overseas. But a federal judge has refused the government's request to dismiss the suit, and we hope that the subsequent public squabble will serve to once again draw greater attention to the emotional and behavioral health of our returning servicemen and women.

The class action suit, filed in November 2007 on behalf of an estimated "320,000 [to] 800,000" affected veterans by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, accuses the government of illegality and general negligence in failing to provide timely mental health treatment to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and related conditions. Defendents included former VA secretary R. James Nicholson, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and various government officials who played some role in administering veterans' affairs. Allegations include: violations of federal statutes guaranteeing treatment for veterans; unacceptably long delays for those who do qualify for treatment; underfunded and understaffed VA health centers.

In a laughable attempt to deflect blame, defense lawyers argue that Congress, in naming the Department of Veterans Affairs as the arbiter of all veterans' healthcare issues, has effectively tied the adminstration's hands. This claim is a flimsy cover for the fact that the United States government is effectively snubbing some of its most valuable literal and rhetorical assets, telling discharged soldiers that their well-being is not particularly high on its list of priorities and claiming that budgetary restraints beyond their control are to blame. The idea that mental health treatment is an "entitlement" for veterans is appalling. The United States government makes decisions that place its service members in foreign theaters and expose them to an endless array of potential health complications. The vast majority serve bravely and should be compensated when they return - especially when they need treatment for conditions that threaten to seriously compromise the future health of themselves and their families. Is the United States government a labyrinthine collection of thousands of individuals with just as many titles, none of whom can be held directly responsible for the paltry treatment available to some very needy veterans? Perhaps. But for those at the very top levels of our government to argue, essentially, that veterans should be glad they're getting any treatment at all is shameful. Their official position is that veterans will receive only "medical care which the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) determines is needed, and only to the extent funds ... are available." Does this single individual hold the power? Has he considered the myriad cases presented by returning soldiers? And to whom is the secretary beholden? The president who appointed him, of course. Decisions in the upper echelons of our government could very quickly begin to redress this serious grievance.

This is not to say that statistical progress has not been made on the part of our government: they have, by their own estimation, hired 3,800 mental health professionals since 2005, and they claim to have at least one PTSD expert on staff at each health center; a recent law also extended the period during which veterans qualify for treatment from 2 to 5 years after discharge (this extension, however, does nothing to minimize the wait for those who desperately need help as soon as possible, and the defense argument that the government is only required to provide as much care as the VA's obviously insufficient budget allows in one year undermines an otherwise welcome development). The government also passed a law in November 2007 that requires the government to develop an (unspecified) program to reduce suicides in the ranks and grant veterans referrals for treatment when they request it. Also commendable. But, as we now see, this development is followed by a huge "if" meaning "if the VA can afford such treament at the time and only when said treatment is most convenient." The suicide hotlines that this policy dictates are more of a gesture than a solution despite their claim to have "saved" 380 potential suicides; those who are seriously planning to harm themselves should call 911 and volunteer for immediate hospitalization.

A recently published Harvard Medical School study made clear that, despite public statements of support and increases in funding on behalf of our government, millions of veterans are not receiving the care they need - a large portion are uninsured, and even those who have coverage often face extended waiting periods for treatment. The percentage of veterans living without health insurance is rising - from 9.9% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004. The study also contradicts the popular image of aging Vietnam veterans as the group most affected - the majority of the uninsured served in recent conflicts including the Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf wars. Even more crushing: nearly 1/2 of these veterans had not seen a doctor in more than 1 year and 2/3 were unemployed; most are still not eligible for Medicare. The fact that this study was conducted more than 3 years ago does nothing to diminish its relevance unless one derives complete reassurance from government PR statements.

We cannot allow soldiers returning from our current conflicts to fall into such a state 5, 10, or 25 years from now. Also worth noting: the vast majority of veterans certainly cannot afford ongoing mental health treatments on their pensions, especially if they have a family depending on them as so many do. If we continue on our current route, the numbers for the youngest generations of soldiers will be worse than those of their predecessors. And talk of restricting the supposedly rampant spending on veterans' healthcare in an age in which the U.S. government spends exponentially more on military concerns than it ever has before is questionable at best and baldly hypocritical at worst. The just-released 2009 budget has effectively negated any sense of compassion that this administration holds for the victims of mental illness.

The plaintiffs want the government to grant immediate treatment to soldiers reporting suicidal thoughts and urges. And this is a request that cannot be denied. It's time for the government to commit itself to remedying the clear lack of comprehensive mental health treatment for our military veterans; despite statements implying that officials share these concerns, the government's conduct in this lawsuit undermines their claims of significant progress.

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