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VA Benefits Ultimately Failed One Young Veteran

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Broward County, FLThere is a widely held view that VA benefits are hard to come by due to the number of VA members applying and qualifying for benefits coupled with a backlog of cases and a lack of resources to properly deal with all the cases in a timely manner. Others hold the view that a culture of systematically denying VA disability benefits on the first application leads to an appeals process and delays that mirror a culture widely seen in the insurance industry.

And yet, sometimes it’s not the lack of benefits that adversely affect the veteran, but the quality and diligence of care that is actually extended to the veteran.

“VA’s current protocol is not working. It’s failing. But [the VA continues] to do it. It’s killing these veterans.”
These are the words of Janine Lutz, a grieving mother whose son Janos Victor Lutz took his own life after washing down a concoction of pills with beer. The young veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts was just 24. These are the words of Janine Lutz, a grieving mother whose son Janos Victor Lutz took his own life after washing down a concoction of pills with beer. The young veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts was just 24.

According to a published report in the Military Times (1/26/15), the Lutz family has issued a demand letter to the VA claiming wrongful death as the result of medical negligence - a precursor to the filing of a VA lawsuit. The central issue to Lutz’ complaint is why the VA allegedly failed to heed its own clinical guidelines for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which the young veteran suffered from.

Janos Victor - known fondly as “John” to his friends - signed up for the Marine Corps at 18. In the midst of intense fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, his battalion lost 14 members, the result of combat in the Helmand province in 2009. He was also exposed to numerous concussive blast events while trapped in an irrigation ditch, in full combat gear, having injured his knee and back.

He had attempted suicide once before

He came home with PTSD and attempted suicide in 2010. Veteran benefits ensured he was afforded the necessary treatment. However, his mother characterizes a VA that appears to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. To wit, a young veteran battling PTSD and suicidal thoughts is prescribed drugs that carry cautions issued by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning against the rare possibility of suicidal thoughts. In this case, disabled veterans benefits may have done more harm than good.

According to the Military Times, in the weeks leading up to his actual suicide, John Lutz had shared with both his psychiatrist and a therapist that he had been suicidal a few weeks before and had asked his mother to secure his guns, and to manage his meds for him.

However, at the time of his appointment, he also indicated that he was not suffering from suicidal thoughts currently. He had also reported that a medication he had been prescribed for anxiety and insomnia - temazepam - made him sleepy. He also said he had stopped taking bupropion for depression some months prior, but did not indicate why.

The Military Times reports that VA records reflect a change in Lutz’ medication to Klonopin, known generically as clonazepam, in order to treat his panic attacks and sleep problems (replacing temazepam). Lutz was also encouraged to return to bupropion.

Janine Lutz notes that VA guidelines for the treatment of PTSD recommends against using benzodiazepines such as temazepam and Klonopin. An FDA insert for Klonopin contains this warning: “May cause suicidal thoughts or action in a very small number of people, about one in 500.”

The Military Times notes that Lutz had been prescribed Klonopin previously, at Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital in North Carolina, by civilian providers at an in-patient mental health facility and elsewhere. Each time the medication was stopped; medical records provided to the Military Times did not indicate why Klonopin was stopped.

A week after returning to Klonopin, Lutz checked in with his care providers and reported he had been sleeping better and did not feel suicidal.

Lutz was prescribed Klonopin against the VA’s own guidelines for PTSD

The next day, Janine Lutz described her son as appearing to be “at peace.” He took a bike ride and went shopping with his father.

But later that day, he went into his childhood bedroom, scrawled DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) across his forehead with a black marker, penned a suicide note to his mother and swallowed large amounts of bupropion and Klonopin together with morphine and beer.

“Mom, there isn’t anything I can say to apologize for this. I love you…this is also not your fault,” Lutz wrote in his farewell note on the day he died, at 24. “I did not use the meds I gave you. These are new prescriptions I picked up the other day. I would [have] done anything to kill myself. No one could have stopped me.”

In their planned VA lawsuit, the Lutz family will be seeking monetary damages sufficient to force the VA to change its protocols and overall way it treats veterans with PTSD.

In deference to the experience of others who are denied disabled veterans benefits, Janine Lutz does not dispute that her son had ample access to treatment from veterans affairs. However, what she has a problem with is the apparent lack of thoroughness in reviewing her son’s medical records.

A spokesperson from VA disability acknowledged the existence of guidelines recommending against the use of benzodiazepines for treatment of PTSD, while also noting that individual cases are complex and that in some cases, their use may be warranted.

The Military Times reports that the VA issued benzodiazepines to 28 percent of 640,000 veterans stricken with PTSD in fiscal 2012, although that figure was down from 31 percent seen in 2009.

Still, Janine Lutz notes that a VA doctor made an entry in her son’s medical record that benzodiazepines should not be used in patients with PTSD. That recommendation, in her son’s case, was ignored.

Lutz will be pursuing her VA lawsuit over VA benefits that went off the rails…


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