A U.S. Court of Appeals panel on Tuesday ruled in favor of two veterans' associations suing the Department of Veterans Affairs for its treatment of mentally ill vets. The three-judge panel in San Francisco ruled that “unchecked incompetence” by the VA led to poor mental health care for veterans.
The court found that there were no suicide prevention officers at any of the 800 outpatient clinics that are most used by veterans. For veterans filing disability claims, the court found it took more than 120 days to process a claim. If the claim was approved, the veteran’s compensation would be based on a rating system, and if a veteran were to appeal a claim, the process could take more than a year.
"Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals and are given no opportunity to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care," the decision reads.
"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 that it employs to provide medical care to veterans and to process their disability benefits claims."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration was taking the ruling seriously. "The Veterans Administration and the Justice Department are taking a very hard look at that ruling and will work closely to address any of the issues raised by the court," Carney told reporters.
The plaintiffs, Washington, D.C.-based Veterans for Common Sense and California-based Veterans United for Truth, argued the VA was not prepared to treat the high number of psychologically troubled soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and had inadequate clinic services and backlogged claim applications.
"VA had no plan for any new patients and claims," VCS executive director Paul Sullivan said in a statement. "VA still has no plan. Tragically, the Appeals Court noted veterans died while waiting for VA to provide health care and benefits."
Sullivan said there were 550,000 disability claims waiting for approval.
More than 6,000 veterans commit suicide each year, according to VA statistics. During President Obama’s 2008 campaign, he said his administration would address the rising tide of suicides in the military. In 2010, Obama signed a health care law requiring the VA to conduct a study on suicide among veterans.
Carney defended Obama's record on veterans' health issues.
"I think it’s important also to step back and note that President Obama strongly believes that the country has a sacred bond with the men and women who have served in our military, and he has taken dramatic steps to improve the health care -- both physical and mental health -- for our veterans," he said.
"The VA has seen one of the largest increases in its budget in the past 30 years. So this is an issue we take very seriously, and that's why the administration will look at this ruling and consider it closely."