Veterans' Group and ACLU Sue U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Over Refusal to Disclose Public Records on Healthcare Budgets

July 13, 2005 12:00 am

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Closure of Pennsylvania Hospitals May Harm Veterans’ Health, Say Groups

PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a veterans’ group claiming that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ refusal to release records regarding controversial health service cutbacks and local hospital closures, unless the group pays more than $17,000 in fees, violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“When you’re in the military, one of the main things you learn is that you never leave anyone behind,” said Valerie Cortazzo, a veteran on service-connected disability and an official of the Coalition of Veterans Advocates (COVA), which is represented in today’s lawsuit. “We’re challenging the department’s rationale for medical cutbacks because we think that at this crucial time, when there are hundreds of soldiers returning from overseas and needing care, the VA is leaving veterans behind.”

In May 2004, the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) decided to close the largest of Pittsburgh’s three area hospitals, located on Highland Drive, claiming that the consolidation of health care services was necessary and would save money, but would not diminish medical and mental health services to area veterans.

However, local veterans groups were skeptical of the DVA’s claims and publicly raised numerous concerns. Among the concerns are whether the two other area medical facilities would have sufficient capacity and staffing to provide quality care to the region’s many veterans and their families; whether the remaining facilities were suitable for treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and various psychiatric disorders who require a calm atmosphere; and whether the DVA was sufficiently accounting for the anticipated increase in the need for services as a result of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since DVA failed to provide anything more than bold assertions that the plan would work, in June 2004 COVA filed a FOIA request for documents that would allow the group to verify the agency’s claims and determine whether the closure of the Highland Drive facility would have an adverse impact on veterans and their families. Since COVA has few funds, it requested a waiver of any processing fees.

In a series of responses, the DVA agreed to disclose the documents, but refused to waive processing fees. Initially, DVA demanded that COVA pre-pay $30,369.75, and then reduced the fee to $17,238.57. But attorneys said that that still was an unaffordable amount for COVA.

On June 21, 2005, DVA’s General Counsel’s Office denied COVA’s administrative appeal for a waiver of the prohibitive fees. DVA stated “there is no indication that the materials are appreciably informative about government operations and will significantly increase the public’s understanding of the subject matter . . . It also appears unlikely that the disclosure will enhance the public’s understanding of VA operations or activities to a considerable extent as compared to the level of understanding before the disclosure.”

The ACLU said that the timing of DVA’s response is ironic, given that one week later the agency admitted to Congress that it had underestimated by more than $1 billion the funding needed to provide health care services.

“It’s difficult to understand, in light of the Veterans Department’s recent disclosures that they had not adequately anticipated veterans’ future health care needs, how the agency could tell COVA with a straight face that records related to cutbacks would not be sufficiently informative,” said Keith Whitson, an ACLU cooperating attorney with the law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. “The real reason was apparently that the records would be too informative, revealing the agency’s failures. But the very purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to give citizens access to non-classified documents so that they can help to hold government agencies accountable for their operations.”

According to Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Legal Director and co-counsel in today’s lawsuit, the DVA’s actions are indicative of an atmosphere of increased government secrecy.

“Since September 11, 2001, the federal government has used numerous tactics to prevent people from getting government records, from expanding drastically the types of documents allegedly involving national security to Attorney General Ashcroft reversing a decades-old presumption in favor of document release,” Walczak said. “Refusing to waive processing fees is simply another tactic in the administration’s attempt to shroud government activity in secrecy and obstruct citizens from holding federal officials accountable for their policy failures.”

“Democracy works best when government operates in the sunshine, and giving people broad access to documents under FOIA is an essential bulwark for open and accountable government,” added Walczak.

Walczak also noted that the national ACLU’s FOIA lawsuits have been instrumental in disclosing the scope of human rights violations in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay.

Today’s case is Coalition of Veterans Advocates v. United States of America, Department of Veterans Affairs, and was filed in the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, located in Pittsburgh.

A copy of the complaint is online at: /node/37139.

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