Setback for Veterans: Mental Health Ruling is Withdrawn

L.A. Now, by Carol Williams: A federal appeals court Wednesday withdrew its May ruling that ordered sweeping reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs to care for those returning from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries. The full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will reconsider the case brought by two veterans advocacy groups alleging systemic failures to treat mental health injuries and help lower a suicide rate that takes the lives of 6,500 former service members each year, according to court records. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski had dissented from the May ruling by a three-judge panel, arguing that “much as the VA’s failure to meet the needs of veterans with PTSD might shock and outrage us, we may not step in and boss it around.” It was not immediately clear from the court’s brief announcement when an 11-judge panel would reconsider the lawsuit brought four years ago by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth on behalf of the nation’s 25 million former service members. The veterans groups submitted a 2008 Rand Corp. report to the court in which it was estimated that 300,000 veterans suffer from PTSD or severe depression, most of them among the 1.6 million who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan over the last decade. Gordon Erspamer, the San Francisco lawyer representing the veterans pro bono, expressed concern over the issues raised by the government in its petition for review by the larger court. He said the challenges included a new contention that veterans “lack any due process protection under the Constitution” entitling them to efficient handling of their treatment and benefit claims. The government’s positions “threaten all veterans and their families and the enforceability of all veterans’ benefits, not only service-connected disability and death compensation, but also education, medical care, burial and every type of statutory entitlement,” Erspamer said. Attorneys for the government could not be immediately reached for comment.