- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

RICHMOND — A Virginia agency is locked in a legal tussle with a Veterans Affairs hospital over whether it has the right to advocate for mentally ill patients in the hospital.

The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) argued in court papers that the U.S. Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (PAIMI) gives the agency access to the Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center in Richmond.

The VA hospital countered that no federal or state law grants access by VOPA, particularly when no patient has sought the agency’s services.

The agency, created under the PAIMI act and funded primarily by federal dollars, is not entitled to represent VA patients “except when it has been requested by a patient to be that patient’s representative,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert P. McIntosh wrote in response to VOPA’s federal lawsuit.

Mr. McIntosh wrote that the independent state agency has not received any request to represent a patient at the hospital. “It has not even received a complaint or any other information on which to base a suspicion that patients are not being cared for properly or that the Medical Center’s system of patient advocacy is not working,” he said.

Mr. McIntosh asked U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne to deny VOPA’s request for an injunction granting it access. Judge Payne scheduled an Aug. 4 hearing on the lawsuit.

VOPA disputed the hospital’s claim that Congress intended to restrict the PAIMI act “to the very limited circumstances where an individual has requested representation.”

In the early 1990s Congress amended the PAIMI act to allow organizations such as VOPA to represent individuals in federal facilities, including VA hospitals, VOPA lawyer Paul J. Buckley said in a June 27 response to Mr. McIntosh’s court filing.

Mr. Buckley did not dispute the hospital’s position that no patient has made a complaint to VOPA or requested its assistance. However, “that merely provides further evidence that the patients are not receiving information regarding their rights under the PAIMI Act,” he wrote.

VOPA Executive Director V. Colleen Miller said yesterday that it’s important for all disabled Virginians to know about the agency’s services, and particularly its new independent status.

“One of our staff attorneys is a veteran himself and he was concerned that vets with disabilities may not know about the protection and advocacy system. His work on this case has confirmed that his concerns were correct,” Miss Miller said.

VOPA, an independent state agency with a staff of 25, investigates cases of abuse and neglect of the physically and mentally disabled. About 90 percent of its funding is provided by the federal government, the remainder by the state.

VOPA, created in July 2002, is not subject to oversight by the governor or state attorney general, as was its predecessor agency, the Department for Rights of Virginians with Disabilities.

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