gaveldecision.jpgA federal appeals court in San Francisco ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs today to revamp its procedures for providing mental health care to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling by a 2-1 vote in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco in 2007 by two veterans’ groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth.

“Veterans are suffering and dying, heedlessly and needlessly,” Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the majority decision.

Reinhardt said an average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day and there are currently more than 84,000 veterans on a waiting list for mental health care.

Reinhardt and Circuit Judge Procter Hug said lengthy delays in care violated veterans’ constitutional due process right to receive treatment from the veterans department, known as the VA.

“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 court majority said.

The panel overturned a ruling in which U.S. District Judge Samuel said the agency may not be meeting all veterans’ needs, but that an overhaul of its procedures was beyond the jurisdiction of the court.

The panel sent the case back to Conti’s court and ordered him to develop a plan to resolve the problems of delay if the VA and the veterans’ groups are unable to agree voluntarily on a plan.

Conti today scheduled a case management conference on the lawsuit for May 27.

Chief Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski said in a dissent that the ruling went beyond strict limits established by Congress on courts’ ability to review VA decisions.

The ruling could be appealed to an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit and to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said, “We are currently reviewing the court’s ruling.”

Sidney Wolinsky, a lawyer for the veterans’ groups, said, “We expect that this decision will result in a swift decline in veteran suicides and attempted suicides and more timely processing of claims.”

Another veterans’ attorney, Gordon Erspamer, said, “This decision hopefully will serve as a model for veterans in the future, and as a testament to the bond of faith between our citizens and the defenders of our freedom.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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