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VA treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder fails to prevent suicides, appeals court rules

May 10, 2011 |  1:14 pm

Department of Veterans Affairs' delays in treating those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related mental illnesses are so "egregious" they violate veterans' constitutional rights, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Citing an average of 18 suicides a day among those returning from military service in war zones, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a San Francisco district judge to draft directives to the VA to fundamentally overhaul its mental-health care.

In a 2-1 ruling, the panel blamed a dysfunctional processing system for the despair, leading to many of the 6,500 suicides each year among veterans.

The appeals court took nearly two years to issue its decision, in part because the court attempted to force the government to negotiate with the two veterans' groups that brought suit over delayed and denied mental-health care and benefits.

Citing the court's inability to order the government "to work faster," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski urged lawyers for the VA and the veterans groups in August 2009 to work out a more effective plan for meeting the wounded veterans' needs.

The parties reported a year later that they were unable to agree on how to proceed.

"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," said the ruling in which Kozinski dissented in part on grounds the court doesn't have the authority to reform the VA.

“We would have preferred Congress or the President to have remedied the VA’s egregious problems without our intervention when evidence of the department’s harmful shortcomings and its failure to properly address the needs of our veterans first came to light years ago,” said the opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt and joined by Kozinski and Senior Judge Procter Hug Jr.

Congress and the VA are better suited to fixing the deficient system for treating mentally wounded soldiers than are the courts, the judges said, adding “but that is only so if those governmental institutions are willing to do their job.”

The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti with instructions to write a court order to the government to provide the care and compensation promised to veterans by law.

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--Carol J. Williams

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