Noting that an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide, a federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to dramatically overhaul its mental health care system.
The “unchecked incompetence” in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims is unconstitutional, the court said.
The VA could ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision with a special 11-judge panel; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case; or abide by the ruling.
“No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel. “Having chosen to honor and provide for our veterans by guaranteeing them the mental health care and other critical benefits to which they are entitled, the government may not deprive them of that support through unchallengeable and interminable delays.”
If the VA fails to come up with an acceptable plan, the appeals court told Conti to fashion his own plan. Conti scheduled a court hearing for May 27.
During the two-week trial without a jury in April 2008, lawyers for the groups showed the judge e-mails between high-ranking VA officials confirming high suicide rates among veterans and a desire to keep quiet the number of vets under its care who attempt suicide.
“Shhh!” began a Feb. 13, 2008, e-mail from Dr. Ira Katz, a VA deputy chief. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”