Court says it was wrong on VA health-care changes

Posted: May 09, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court reversed its demand that the Veterans Affairs Department dramatically overhaul its mental-health-care system.

A special 11-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said Monday that any such overhaul needs to be ordered by Congress or the president.

The 10-1 ruling reversed an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the same court.

The May 2011 ruling had ordered the VA to ensure that suicidal vets are seen immediately, among other changes. It found the VA's "unchecked incompetence" in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims was unconstitutional.

The new decision said courts are powerless to implement the fixes sought by two veterans groups that filed the lawsuit against the VA in 2007.

In the strongly worded ruling in May, the Ninth Circuit said it takes the department an average of four years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed veterans. The court also said it often takes weeks for a suicidal vet to get a first appointment.

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski dissented from that ruling, writing that the ruling trampled congressional limits on judicial review of VA decisions.

Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth filed the lawsuit in San Francisco federal court in 2007. After a two-week trial in 2008, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti said he was powerless to act because Congress narrowly limited the authority courts have in reviewing VA benefit decisions.

Conti didn't find a system-wide crisis in which health care is not being provided within a reasonable time to the roughly five million veterans enrolled in the VA's health-care system, which includes 153 hospitals and 800 clinics.

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