The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a 2-1 decision released May 10, called for an overhaul in how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides mental health treatment for soldiers returning from military service.
“The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations,” the court stated in its opinion.
The sweeping 104-page opinion cited a litany of statistics portraying the department as overwhelmed by the dramatic influx in veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with mental health problems.
It lambasted the department for failing to follow through on its own suicide prevention plan and for failing to provide suicide prevention specialists in the community based outpatient clinics where most veterans receive their health care.
Eighteen veterans commit suicide on average each day in the U.S.
The court also highlight the four-year average in time required for veterans to fully adjudicate for their full benefits, arguing that these benefits constitute property rights whose delays are a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Since 2001, more than 550,000 veterans have filed for disability compensation benefits, but fewer than 100,000 have been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a Veterans for Common Sense news release. Almost 200,000 veterans have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
Though the 9th Circuit reasoned that it is not the proper forum for detailing potential improvements to the process, it stated that it was bound to rule in the case due to the department’s “egregious problems” administering benefits to returning veterans.
“We willingly acknowledge that, in theory, the political branches of our government are better positioned than are the courts to design the procedures necessary to save the veteran’s lives and to fulfill our country’s obligation to care for those who have protected us,” the opinion stated. “But that is only so if those governmental institutions are willing to do their job.”
The case has been remanded to district court for the parties to hash out a settlement to improve the department’s mental health services.