Federal Court Rules Congress and President Bear Responsibility for Fixing Veterans’ Mental Health Crisis

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Catch-22 is alive and well at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, with an able assist last week from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, under Army Rule Catch-22 a crazy pilot could be grounded if he so requested, but the fact of his asking was proof of his sanity, and therefore he could not be grounded no matter how crazy he was. Today, Catch-22 means a situation whose only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem, or any no-win situation governed by circular logic.

Last week’s case arises out of the scandalous delays American veterans face in obtaining referrals from the VA’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for care, especially mental health care.
As AllGov reported last week, VHA evaluated less than half of first-time mental-health patients last year within the goal of 14 days, and most patients waited about 50 days for a full evaluation. According to veterans advocates, up to 18 veterans commit suicide every day, many of them while awaiting health care referrals.
To remedy that situation, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth sued the VA in 2008, arguing that the delays were so severe they rose to the level of a denial of constitutional due process and asking the courts to force the VA to fix its system. Last year, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the veterans, concluding that, “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.”
It was that conclusion the full Ninth Circuit overturned last week. The court held that because federal law explicitly requires veterans to bring individual claims to the VA and not the federal courts, the court could not hear the veterans’ claim that the overall system was flawed, as it was based on individual cases over which the court had no jurisdiction.
Further, the court held that to bring a system-wide claim, veterans would have to go through the VA, which could not actually hear the case because it is set up only to hear individual claims. In the end, the court concluded the veterans had nowhere to go other than the political system: it is the job of Congress and the Executive Branch to fix the problem.
-Matt Bewig
To Learn More:
Full 9th Circuit Pulls Plug on Veterans Affairs Overhaul (by Tim Hull, Courthouse News Service)
Shinseki: VA May  Need more Mental Health Workers (by Steve Vogel, Washington Post)
VA Misled Public about Timeliness of Mental Health Care (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)



Leave a comment