In a final decision five years in the making, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Monday that the courts lack jurisdiction to order changes in the way the Veterans Administration handles mental health claims.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reports:
Two veterans groups said in a 2007 lawsuit that the VA had made mental health care virtually unavailable to thousands of discharged soldiers through perfunctory exams, long waits for referrals and treatment, and a prolonged medical benefits process in which vets can't hire lawyers.
At a trial in 2008, Department of Veterans Affairs documents showed that the system took an average of 4.4 years to review veterans' health care claims, that more than 1,400 veterans who had been denied coverage died in one six-month period while their appeals were pending, and that 18 veterans per day were committing suicide, much higher than the rate among the general population.
The District Court which heard the case in 2008 ruled that the legal remedies to the veterans' complaints lay with Congress or the Department of Veterans Affairs -- and not the courts. Last year a three judge panel overturned the District Court ruling. The Obama Administration requested the full Ninth Circuit Court consider the question, and yesterday's decision confirmed the original District Court finding.
In a press release today, veterans groups expressed frustration with the decision:
Sandy Cook, the Vice-Chair for Plaintiff Veterans United for Truth (VUFT), remarked: "The message that this decision sends to the VA is that it can continue its unconstitutional practices unchecked by the power of the Courts. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a carte blanche approval for the VA to continue to mishandle, mistreat, and stiff our veterans."
Bob Handy, the President of VUFT, added: "I should never underestimate the ability of our Courts to weave some rationale that leaves veterans out in the cold or on the street, homeless and destitute, without any recourse. It is no wonder that the suicide rate is so high."
[Veterans for Common Sense] Executive Director, Patrick Bellon, said “I was always taught our Constitution trumps statutes and that our Courts were our last bastions to preserve our liberties; today, that promise has proved hollow, and all I hear is the continuing echoes of men and woman in distress. We should all feel their pain. This day will be remembered as the day our country turned its back on our veterans. VCS vows to fight this heartbreaking decision all the way to the end, because 18 of our veterans commit suicide every day.”
In April the VA announced plans to add 1,600 mental health clinicians to veterans hospitals across the country to help meet the growing need for mental health care, especially among veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The week after the VA's announcement, its own Inspector General issued a lengthy report finding that too many veterans were waiting too long for mental health care. Worse, the report found that the VA did not have a "reliable and accurate method of determining whether they are providing patients timely access to mental health services." The Inspector General found just over half of new patients waited 50 days to be evaluated. VA rules require a full mental health evaluation for new patients in 14 days. About a third of patients then had longer than required waits to begin treatment.
Writing for the majority in yesterday's 10-1 decision, Judge Jay Bybee acknowledged the merits of the veterans' case:
VCS’s complaint sounds a plaintive cry for help, but it has been misdirected to us. As much as we may wish for expeditious improvement in the way the VA handles mental health care and service-related disability compensation, we cannot exceed our jurisdiction to accomplish it. ... Such responsibilities are left to Congress and the Executive.