The federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had sought to dismiss the lawsuit claiming that the groups bringing the suit, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, were simply "advocacy organizations" and did not have standing to sue on behalf of the estimated 320,000 to 800,000 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with cases of PTSD.
"We won this round against VA. Veterans will have our day in court," the director of Veterans for Common Sense Paul Sullivan said in a statement. "The VA must now release documents under discovery about their deliberate attempts to deny and delay medical care and disability benefits for all veterans, especially our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans."
"The decision is vitally important," added Melissa Kasnitz, an attorney with the Berkeley, California based non-profit Disability Rights Advocates, which along with the law firm Morrison and Forrester is representing the veterans groups. "It allows the case to move forward toward trial."
"We want the government to ensure that veterans get prompt care and that the VA disability claims process is fair and run in a timely fashion," she added.
The complaint, filed in federal court in July, sought a Judge's order finding that VA's system of handling disability claims and appeals is so dysfunctional that it violates veterans' constitutional and statutory rights. The suit also calls for court orders requiring VA to provide immediate medical and psychological help to returning troops and to screen them for risk of suicide.
The VA now has a backlog of over 600,000 applications for claims, and a decision on a claim can take up to 12 years to be processed through appeals. According to data obtained in November by McClatchy Newspapers, veterans must wait an average of 183 days for a claim to be decided.
A CBS news investigation released last November found that 120 veterans kill themselves every week; or over 6,000 per year.
CBS asked all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records for veterans and non-veterans, and found that veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide.
In 2005, CBS found a total of at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. The Veterans groups suing the VA contend the long wait for health care and disability care through the government system contribute to the large number of suicides.
In his 42-page ruling allowing the class action suit to go forward, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti wrote that the federal system for weighing individual veterans' claims "does not provide an adequate alternative remedy for Plaintiffs' claims," but stopped short of ruling on the merits of the claims themselves.
The VA declined comment on the Conti decision, but issued a statement saying it is "dedicated to meeting the mental health care needs of all veterans." It noted an increase in its mental health care staff and creation of new programs to treat returning soldiers.
But veterans groups aren't convinced and will be back in court February 22.
"We are seeking an immediate order from the court to force the government to stop turning away veterans who are suicidal," attorney Kasnitz said. "Also, Congress has appropriated money to the VA to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans but the money hasn't been spent. We are asking the court to force the VA to stop impounding the money."
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