Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Paul Sullivan clears up rumors on VA law suit

Being very involved with what is going on in this country with our veterans for as long as I have, I've managed to come into contact with a lot of dedicated people who won me over with their love for our veterans. One of them is Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. I am proud to consider him a friend and he is always quick to respond to emails from me. It never seems to matter how busy this man is. He still takes time out for me. You have to keep in mind that when it comes to the people with power in this country, I am virtually no one. I fly so far under the radar I'm shocked when I'm quoted or something I wrote has drawn any attention at all. I can't really make a difference but I know people who not only can, but are doing it. Paul is at the top of my list of mountain movers.

The NAMI convention distressed me at certain points. Most of those times have been included in postings on this blog since the convention. This bothered me so much, I asked Paul to answer some questions to clear up some rumors I heard during the 4 days of the convention. I'm not picking on the people of NAMI and I'm really very proud to be a member considering how many of them across the nation are doing the jobs of saints. Fantastic things are happening because of these truly dedicated people. But that said, as with anything else, every organization has some people with a mind set on something. There is no way possible for everyone to know everything in their realm. I want to believe these rumors were not made knowing they were not true statements. I also wanted to clear up what I heard and what I know to make sure I have the facts on these issues. It's all too important to me. Plus, knowing how much information goes into this tiny brain of mine, it's far too easy to get things jumbled up. I am thankful I had Paul to turn to for the answers.

What caused Veterans for Common Sense to file the law suit against the VA?

Jonathan Schulze and Jeffrey Lucey, two Gulf War combat veterans with PTSD, were refused VA medical care even though they physically came to VA medical facilities with their families and told VA staff they were suicidal. Congress may legislate and perform oversight, yet the Court can force immediate action: one of our top priorities was to force VA from turning away suicidal veterans.

VCS initially filed Freedom of Information Act requests earlier in 2007 about suicides, and VA responded that they had no information. VCS also filed suit because the number of disability claims waiting for review has doubled in the past few years, and the length of time has increased from five months to more than six months.

However, VA executives paid themselves nearly $4 million in bonuses for their dismal performance. Furthermore, VA’s IG reported three times that 25 percent of veterans waited more than one month to see a doctor. VA testified under oath twice that the figure was less than 5 percent. Clearly, VA has a capacity crisis – too many veterans and not enough doctors or claims processors. Furthermore, the 23-page claim form and several healthcare enrollment forms are overly complex, especially for our veterans with PTSD or TBI. For more detailed information, please go to

What caused Veterans for Common Sense to join forces with Veterans United for Truth?

VUFT is another non-profit veteran advocacy group, and they are based in California.

How were the emails from Dr. Katz discovered?

After more than 8 months of delays, the Federal Court ORDERED VA to turn over the e-mails to our attorneys in our lawsuit as part of the discovery process.

What did Dr. Katz say to explain these emails?

He admitted they were true and that he wrote them. You can read his testimony at the SVAC web site where he offers evasive explanations.

What were the facts discovered as a result of these emails being found?

1. VA says they are monitoring completed and attempted suicides to see if there is a difference in suicide rates between veterans, war veterans, and non-veterans.

2. VA essentially confirmed the CBS study that found veterans are more likely to complete a suicide, and for younger veterans aged 18 – 24, they were three to four times more likely to complete a suicide..

3. VA completes “suicide incident reports” and “root cause analysis” reports for each completed suicide, yet then declares them confidential “quality assurance” and places them off limits to Congress, veterans’ families, and attorneys. It is very important for Congress and the Courts and the public to see these reports (with privacy protections of course) so that we can better understand why the veterans killed themselves, and how VA can be improved to prevent and reduce suicides.

How many suicides does the VA know about since the beginning of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq?

There is no national “veteran completed suicide” reporting system now, yet VA is under considerable pressure to begin working to identify all of them. VCS provided a methodology to Congress to identify as many as possible by starting with the list of 1.7 million deployed and then checking all federal, state, and local death certificates.

Currently, VA looks at death certificates where the document reports the person as a veteran. This is incomplete because many families do not know if a person was a veteran or the funeral home / coroner don’t ask. DoD only reports active duty suicides and excludes Reserve and National Guard suicides because they are not on Active Duty.. Our VCS methodology would identify all completed suicides among all 1.7 million, not just the incomplete pieces of the puzzle the DoD and VA currently look at.

How many attempted suicides does the VA know about during the same period?

See above. VA knows about attempted suicides only among those veterans receiving VA care, and that is about 1,000 per month, or 12,000 per year, based on Katz’ e-mail.

How did the emails end up with Senator Akaka and his committee?

The Katz e-mails were produced at trial in April 2008, and then journalists reported them to the public. I not exactly sure, yet I believe Sen. Akaka’s staff saw them in the widely reported press accounts of our trial.

Do you know about the Freedom of Information request to the VA by CREW and VoteVets?

Yes. It is too bad that VA still plays games with FOIA. VA should be forced to turn over the information. Embarrassing information is never a reason to deny a FOIA, as VA frequently does.

How did the email from Norma Perez end up in the hands of congress?

The Perez e-mail discouraging diagnoses for PTSD among veterans was sent by Perez to several VA staff, who in turn sent it to other VA staff, who in tern sent it to a veteran advocate in Texas. That person turned it over to VoteVets and CREW. VCS did not play a role in uncovering the e-mail, yet VCS did play a role in publicizing the e-mail.

What did the entire email suggest?

I would suggest reading the e-mail, as it speaks for itself.

How did that email end up with the congress and then incorporated into the law suit filed by Veterans For Common Sense?

The Perez e-mail and news articles were forwarded from me to our attorneys with a request that they investigate it. They did investigate it by sending a letter to the Dept. of Justice, who then authenticated it and confirmed that VA Secretary James Peake’s office knew about the Perez e-mail on April 7, 2008 – a full two weeks before our trial began, yet VA failed to provide it to our attorneys under discovery. Our attorneys then asked the judge to add the Perez e-mail to the body of evidence we introduced at trial. At a hearing earlier this month, the judge agreed with our attorneys, and the judge also admitted the entire Senate hearing transcript about the Perez e-mail into evidence – a victory for veterans. Sen. Akaka would know for sure, yet I believe he and his staff learned of the Perez e-mail from the press.

What is your view of these findings regarding the treatment of our veterans by the VA after these emails were discovered?

Nearly all VA employees are well-intended and want to assist veterans. I know this because I worked at VA and still know many VA employees. However, the system is overly complex, the system is overloaded, and the system is mired in a deep financial, leadership, and capacity crisis.

Compounding the problem is the disappointing fact that the current political appointees in Washington are incompetent at best, and malicious toward veterans at worst. This combination causes very serious adverse problems for VA, veterans, and families. The solution remains the obvious. VA needs an massive overhaul immediately.

VA needs new leaders, full mandatory funding, and significantly streamlined procedures so veterans can get fast and high-quality medical care and benefits. The situation is bad now, with 325,000 new and unplanned casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars flooding into VA hospitals and clinics, plus 288,000 unanticipated disability claims from recent war veterans. If the crisis is not addressed immediately with aggressive action, the current administration will be held responsible for crashing VA on the rocks.

Although VA had systemic problems in the 1990s and early 2000s, the situation spiraled out of control when Jim Nicholson became Secretary in early 2005. Nicholson, who had no experience with VA, healthcare, or disability claims, served as Karl Rove’s and Grover Norquist’s personal partisan wrecking ball to tear apart VA, bust up the unions, and privatize it. In the end, our only recourse was to file suit because veterans were literally completing suicide, yet VA leaders appeared oblivious to this life-or-death crisis.

In my view, we can learn the lessons from the Vietnam and Gulf wars, where many veterans with psychological trauma were neglected, and improve the situation. Or, we can take the current approach by VA: pinch pennies, bury your head in the sand, and leave the disaster to the next administration. The decision to fix VA was straightforward, yet the battle to fix VA is very hard.

Paul Sullivan
Executive Director
Veterans for Common Sense
Post Office Box 15514
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 558-4553

I want to thank Paul for his time and for all he has done for the veterans in this country. Think about the numbers of veterans his actions will make a difference for. He doesn't want more families to have to bury another son or daughter because the VA just didn't have room for them when they needed their wounds to be treated. We've all read too many stories like Jonathan's and Jeffrey's, or Tim Bowman, or Joshua Omvig, along with the hundreds of others we found in the media. Far too much suffering that did not need to happen.

Senior Chaplain Kathie Costos
"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation." - George Washington