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Ninth Circuit Says Congress, President Must Fix VA

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 07, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed itself Monday in a decision addressing the state of mental health care services in Veterans Affairs hospitals.

In a 10-1 decision written by Judge Jay Bybee, the court backtracked to say that the Congress and the president -- not the courts -- must cure the VA's previously-diagnosed "unchecked incompetence," The Washington Post reports.

The controversy at the center of this case is the growing number of mental health problems among veterans returning from the wars of the last decade. As the Ninth Circuit noted in its panel opinion last year, veterans who return home from war suffering from psychological problems are entitled by law to disability benefits.

On average, 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Roughly one-quarter of those are enrolled with VA health care system. Among all veterans enrolled in the VA system, an additional 1,000 attempt suicide each month. Many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals.

Two nonprofit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, asked the federal courts to remedy the delays in mental health care delivery and the adjudication of the VA's service-connected disability compensation claims. After a district court sided with the government at trial, the Ninth Circuit panel granted the plaintiffs' request, finding that the government had violated the veterans' Fifth Amendment due process rights to receive healthcare and benefits that they are guaranteed to by law from wounds and trauma sustained in war.

In the latest appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to grant relief because Congress placed judicial review of veterans' benefits claims within the exclusive purview of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

In reversing last year's panel decision, Judge Bybee wrote, that the "[plaintiffs'] complaint sounds a plaintive cry for help, but it has been misdirected to us. 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."

Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth have indicated that they will petition the Supreme Court for further review, reports The Washington Post.

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