CBS News producer Pia Malbran wrote this for CBSNews.com.
In closing arguments in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), plaintiff lawyers accusing the agency of failing to effectively take care of our nation's military veterans said, "1,457 veterans died while their appeals were pending" in the last six months alone.
"More of these veterans are dying in the United States than out in combat," attorney Arturo Gonzalez said.
Two veterans rights groups - Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth - sued the VA hoping a federal judge could order the government agency to overhaul and improve its system. The trial took place in San Francisco with seven days of court testimony. Closing remarks were held Wednesday.
Plaintiff lawyers claimed the agency has dropped the ball in a number of ways and as a result has not provided proper access to health care and benefits to veterans. For example, they said the VA has yet to fully implement the Mental Health Strategic Plan that was introduced back in 2004. Gonzalez said, "there is no plan for dealing with all of these veterans who are returning and who are in need of help." The argument was also made that veterans are waiting too long to get medical appointments and the benefits they deserve.
Daniel Bensing, the Department of Justice lawyer representing the VA, told the judge that the VA has a "very well-regarded system for providing health care." He insisted that 80 percent of the Mental Health Strategic Plan recommendations have been adopted and he said, "98 percent of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans are seen within 30 days."
The issue of suicide also played a big part in the trial. Damaging internal e-mails made public early on, as reported by CBS News, showed top officials at the VA discussing how to withhold critical information about the risk of suicide among veterans from the public. Gonzalez and his team said the emails show how the VA's top brass are not dealing with the true scope of mental health issues facing veterans.
Bensing did not talk specifically about the e-mails in his closing statement but said "we don't dispute that suicide is a major, serious problem among veterans." He said the issue of suicide is already a "major priority" for the VA and claimed the evidence presented by other attorneys on the issue of suicide was "unnecessary." Furthermore, he said the mental health budget has increased from $3.2 billion to $3.5 billion annually and 3,700 new mental health professionals have recently been hired by the VA.
U.S. District Court judge Samuel Conti now has to make a decision in the case and will do so after receiving post-trial summaries from both sides which is scheduled to happen May 9 and May 19.
By Pia Malbran
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