SAN FRANCISCO - Noting that an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide, a federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to dramatically overhaul its mental health care system.
In the strongly worded ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it takes the department an average of four years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed veterans.
The court also said it often takes weeks for a suicidal vet to get a first appointment.
The "unchecked incompetence" in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims is unconstitutional, the court said.
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel. "Having chosen to honor and provide for our veterans by guaranteeing them the mental health care and other critical benefits to which they are entitled, the government may not deprive them of that support through unchallengeable and interminable delays."
The 9th Circuit ruling overturned a 2008 verdict of U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti.
After a two-week trial, Conti ruled that a lawsuit filed by two veterans groups seeking a judicial order for an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs was "misdirected."
Conti also didn't find a systemwide crisis in which health care is not being provided within a reasonable time.
The appeals court, however, said there's ample evidence that the department is falling down in its duty to provide timely care for the mental health needs of the country's military veterans.
"The delays have worsened in recent years, as the influx of injured troops returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed an unprecedented strain on the VA, and has overwhelmed the system," Reinhardt wrote.
The appeals court sent the case back to Conti in the trial court and ordered him to work with the VA and the veterans groups toward a new mental health care plan that implements a speedier process to appeal denied benefits, provides timely mental health treatment and ensures suicidal vets are seen immediately.
If the VA fails to come up with an acceptable plan, the appeals court told Conti to fashion his own plan.