Federal court reverses order to overhaul VA treatment system
By HOWARD MINTZ | San Jose Mercury News | Published: May 7, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO — In a major setback for suffering combat veterans, a federal appeals court on Monday found that Congress, not the courts, is responsible for fixing the VA’s troubled mental health care system, overturning a previous court that found the program riddled with “unchecked incompetence.”
In a 10-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit that sought to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to overhaul the treatment program and reversed an earlier ruling that would have forced the government to speed up treatment requests and benefit claims.
The decision came in a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a veterans’ group that alleged the VA’s system could be blamed for suicides and other suffering because of its slow approach to treating returning soldiers.
“(The lawsuit) sounds a plaintive cry for help, but it has been misdirected to us,” Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the court. “As much as we may wish for expeditious improvement in the way the VA handles mental health care and service-related disability compensation, we cannot exceed our jurisdiction to accomplish it.”
The ruling marks the latest turn in a case that impacts the VA’s handling of mental health care for hundreds of thousands of returning war veterans, many suffering from PTSD, depression and other fallout from combat in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
San Francisco U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti held a seven-day trial in the case in 2008, determining that the federal courts do not have the power to order the VA to overhaul its mental health care system.
A divided three-judge 9th Circuit panel disagreed last year, saying, “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 Obama administration appealed, persuading the 9th Circuit to overturn that decision. Only 9th Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder dissented, expressing concern it leaves veterans in a “Catch-22” position because they can’t turn to the courts if the VA fails to respond to their cases.
Gordon Erspamer, the attorney for the veterans rights group, said he believes there are strong arguments to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, warning that the 9th Circuit had “given the VA carte blanche to do anything it wants to veterans.”
“These groups have been going to Congress with these problems for years,” Erspamer said. “This opinion basically closes the door to federal (court) to any claims by veterans.”