Vets Mental Health Suit Revived

Veterans return from Afghanistan April 2011. (US Army)

Veterans have a constitutional right to effective mental health care, says the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today.  In addition, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said they and their surviving families have a right to timely resolution of their service-connected disability and death benefits.

The ruling revives a case that had been dismissed last year.  Two non-profit groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, asked the trial judge to order the VA to remedy delays in providing mental health care to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But dissenting Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said the majority “hijacks the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health treatment and disability compensation programs and installs a district judge as reluctant commandant-in-chief.”

The veterans groups sued to force the VA to improve conditions.  They maintained that the lengthy delays violated veterans’ due process rights to receive the care and benefits guaranteed by law.

Reinhardt, joined by Judge Procter Hug, lays out some pretty powerful facts in support of resurrecting the case.  In an average day 18 veterans commit suicide.  Roughly one quarter of them were involved in the VA health care system before they took their lives.  Among veterans enrolled in the VA system, another 1,000 attempt suicide each month.

A significant number of vets coming home from war suffer from psychological problems and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but it takes nearly four years, on average, for a veteran to resolve claims for benefits.  And that has only gotten worse in recent years with vets from Iraq and Afghanistan overwhelming the VA system, Reinhardt states.

He puts the blame at the feet of Congress.  “Had Congress taken the requisite action and rendered this case unnecessary even while it was pending before us, we would have been happy to terminate the proceedings and enter an order of dismissal,” he said.

The opinion states the Constitution affirms the right of people to be “free from unjustified governmental deprivation of property – including the health care and benefits that out laws guarantee veterans.”

“The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” he wrote.

The case goes back to U.S. District Judge Sam Conti in San Francisco, unless the government pursues further appeal, or asks the entire 9th Circuit to reconsider today’s decision.

Case: Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, No. 08-16728

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