Dept. of Veterans Affairs Must Improve Mental Health Services

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 19, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a sweeping and strongly-worded 104-page decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a major overhaul of the Veteran's Affairs mental health care system. The VA court decision has come down at a time when depression and suicide among members of the armed forces have escalated.

The decision was made by a 2-1 majority in the 3-judge Ninth Circuit Panel. Chief Judge Kozinski dissented.

The lawsuit was initiated in 2007 by two non-profit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, Inc. They sued the VA and the government for "shameful failures" in the veteran mental health care system, reports Reuters.

In the majority opinion, written by Judge Reinhardt, the court found that the government had violated the veterans' 5th Amendment due process rights to receive healthcare and benefits that they are guaranteed to by law from wounds and trauma sustained in war.

The court's opinion cited some staggering statistics. On average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Of the 18, about one quarter of them are enrolled in the VA health care system. According to the court, while the VA is mandated to give health care and mental health support to veterans, many veterans are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals, with no support in the interim.

The court admitted that it cannot give the veteran's groups the statutory relief that they seek under the Administrative Procedure Act.

But, it has remanded the case to the District Court, and unless the two parties settle the case privately, has ordered the District Court to issue a ruling consistent with their opinion. Essentially, the court will be mandating that the VA institute some sweeping mental health care reforms.

"We are presented here with the question of what happens when the political branches fail to act in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution," wrote Judge Reinhardt, citing to the failures of Congress and the government to institute the changes.

The Veteran's Affairs mental health system will be going through a major overhaul one way or another - through a mandate by the District Court, or through a settlement between the two parties. Officials declined to comment on the VA court decision.

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