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Originally published July 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 24, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Injured Iraq war veterans sue VA over delays in care

Frustrated by delays in health care, injured Iraq war veterans accused VA Secretary Jim Nicholson in a lawsuit of breaking the law by denying...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Frustrated by delays in health care, injured Iraq war veterans accused VA Secretary Jim Nicholson in a lawsuit of breaking the law by denying them disability pay and mental-health treatment.

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

Suing on behalf of hundreds of thousands of veterans, it accuses the VA of failing veterans on numerous fronts.

It contends the VA didn't provide prompt disability benefits, failed to add staff to reduce wait times for medical care and didn't boost services for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The lawsuit also accuses the agency of deliberately cheating some veterans by allegedly working with the Pentagon to misclassify PTSD claims as pre-existing personality disorders to avoid paying benefits.

The VA and Pentagon have generally denied such charges.

"When one of our combat veterans walks into a VA hospital, then they must see a doctor that day," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, which filed the lawsuit. "When a war veteran needs disability benefits because he or she can't work, then they must get a disability check in a few weeks.

"The VA has betrayed our veterans," Sullivan said.

VA spokesman Matt Smith said Monday he could not comment on a pending lawsuit.

"Through outreach efforts, the VA ensures returning ... service members have access to the widely recognized quality health care they have earned, including services such as prosthetics or mental-health care," Smith said.

"VA has also given priority handling to their monetary disability-benefit claims," he said.

The lawsuit comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the VA and Pentagon after reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.

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The complaint seeks to represent between 320,000 and 800,000 veterans of the Iraq war who lawyers say are at risk of having PTSD.

Ultimately, a federal judge will have to decide whether the lawsuit is properly deemed a class action that adequately represents them.

As of March 31, roughly 52,375 Iraq veterans had been evaluated at VA facilities for suspected PTSD, according to an internal quarterly VA report.

In the VA region that includes Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, the VA has made 3,185 diagnoses of PTSD among returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through March 31 of this year, according to figures cited by Sullivan.

Today, the VA's backlog of disability payments is between 400,000 and 600,000, with delays of up to 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal.

"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 lawsuit says.

It asks that a federal court order the VA to make immediate improvements.

Nicholson abruptly announced last week he would step down by Oct. 1 to return to the private sector. He has repeatedly defended the agency during his 2 ½-year tenure while acknowledging there was room for improvement.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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