Federal Court Orders Overhaul Of Mental Health Services For Veterans

May 11, 2011

Yesterday's legal arguments about the constitutionality of health overhaul dominated headlines today.

But in other big health news, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the Department of Veteran Affairs to overhaul how it handles mental health care for vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious conditions.

The court noted that it takes, on average, more than four years for veterans to get a disability claim through the VA system. Each day, meanwhile, an average of 18 veterans commit suicide, the judges noted.

The stark opinion says:

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.

Indeed, the court found that the VA's delays in delivering mental health care are so "egregious" that the department has violated veterans' constitutional right to due process.

The nonprofit groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth filed a lawsuit seeking action back in 2007. They called for changes in the way the VA delivers mental health care and big changes in the way it processes disability claims. A lower court ruled against the veterans groups in 2008.

Efforts to resolve the impasse through mediation failed. The majority opinion written by Senior Judge Procter Hug Jr. acknowledged the unusual and extreme nature of the situation:

There comes a time when the political branches have so completely and chronically failed to respect the People's constitutional rights that the courts must be willing to enforce them. We have reached that unfortunate point with respect to veterans who are suffering from the hidden, or not hidden, wounds of war.

A Justice Department spokesman told the Los Angeles Times the department didn't have an immediate comment but would review the ruling.

For more on brain injuries sustained by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder, see and hear the work by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling and ProPublica's T. Christian Miller. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.