- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A coalition of injured Iraq war veterans is accusing VA Secretary Jim Nicholson of breaking the law by denying them disability pay and mental health treatment.

The class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, filed yesterday in federal court in San Francisco, seeks broad change in the agency as it struggles to meet growing demands from veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Suing on behalf of hundreds of thousands of veterans, it charges that the VA has failed warriors on several fronts, from providing prompt disability benefits, to adding staff to reduce wait times for medical care to boosting services for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The lawsuit also accuses the VA of deliberately cheating some veterans by purportedly working with the Pentagon to misclassify PTSD claims as pre-existing personality disorders to avoid paying benefits. The VA and Pentagon generally have denied such charges.

VA spokesman Matt Smith said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit, but he said the agency is committed to meeting the special needs of Iraq war veterans.

“Through outreach efforts, the VA ensures returning global war on terror service members have access to the widely recognized quality health care they have earned including services such as prosthetics or mental health care,” he said. “VA has also given priority handling to their monetary disability benefit claims.”

The lawsuit was filed while the VA and Pentagon face intense political and public scrutiny after reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured soldiers.

“Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system,” the complaint states.

It asks that a federal court order the VA to make immediate improvements that would speed disability payments, ensure fairness in awards and provide more complete access to mental health care.

Mr. Nicholson announced last week that he would step down by Oct. 1 to return to the private sector. He has defended the agency repeatedly during his 2½-year tenure while acknowledging there was room for improvement.

More recently, after high-profile suicides in which families of veterans say the VA did not provide adequate care, Mr. Nicholson pledged to add mental health services and hire more suicide-prevention coordinators.

Some veterans say those measures aren’t enough. In the lawsuit, they note that government investigators warned as early as 2002 that the VA needed to fix its backlogged claims system and make other changes.

The veterans groups involved in the lawsuit are Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., which claims 11,500 members, and Veterans United for Truth, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., with 500 members.