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2 groups urge overhaul of VA health system

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Lawyers for two veterans groups asked a judge Monday to order the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to overhaul its health system, especially its mental health treatment, to meet growing demand from soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two veteran advocacy groups sued the Bush administration last year, claiming that the VA failed to provide prompt disability benefits, add staff to reduce wait times for medical care and boost services for post-traumatic stress disorder. A weeklong hearing on the lawsuit began Monday in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the VA and Pentagon after reports of shoddy outpatient care of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere. Suicides and suicide attempts continue to rise, the Pentagon reports.

The groups suing are Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, which claims 11,500 members, and Santa Barbara-based Veterans United for Truth with 500 members.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti is scheduled to hear from dueling mental health experts this week to determine whether he should order the VA to immediately spend about $60 million to provide care to hundreds of thousands of veterans they say have pending health claims.