Supreme Court Denies Hearing on Suicidal Veterans Turned Away from VA

Veterans for Common Sense, by Charles Sheehan-Miles: Washington, DC – On Friday, January 4, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the landmark case brought by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth VUFT on behalf of Veterans delayed and denied medical care and benefits by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Originally filed in July 2007, the VCS – VUFT lawsuit highlighted the chronic delays and denials for specific conditions associated with the tidal wave of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) casualties resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In response to the Court’s decision, VCS issued the following statement. VA remains mired in crisis, and Veterans will continue fighting to reform VA so that no veteran waits for VA healthcare or benefits. We are deeply disappointed the Court did not hear the urgent plea of suicidal Veterans who face delays of months, and often years, seeking VA assistance. Although significant improvements were made in some areas within VA, such as a suicide hotline set up after our lawsuit that rescued 23,000 distraught Veterans, the nation’s second largest department remains in deep crisis due to decades of underfunding and a lack of significant Congressional oversight of VA’s $140 billion per year budget. Although Veterans lost on a technicality, no one disputes the number of preventable Veteran deaths associated with VA’s negligence. Last year, the families of nearly 20,000 Veterans were paid disability benefits after the Veterans died. A shocking 18 Veterans commit suicide every day. More than 12,000 veterans call VA for suicide prevention each month. During our nation’s worst economic disaster in 80 years, more than 1.1 million Veterans still await VA disability claim decisions. Of those, 900,000 cases wait an average of nine months for a new or re-opened claim decision, plus an additional 250,000 cases wait four more years for an appealed claim decision. VA’s Inspector General reported in 2012 that VA makes errors in approximately 30 percent of VA’s claim decisions. While our Veterans wait, they remain unable to pay their mortgage or rent, and face great challenges feeding their families. Let us hope VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Congressional leaders make sure VA has the funding, staffing, laws, regulations, training, and oversight urgently needed so no more Veterans die while waiting. Originally filed in July 2007, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki went to trial in April 2008 before Senior Federal District Court Judge Samuel Conti. Despite finding that “the VA may not be meeting all of the needs of the nation’s Veterans,” Judge Conti concluded that the power to remedy the crisis facing Veterans lies with the other branches of government, including Congress and the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In May 2011, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s decision, and berated VA for the staggering 18 Veteran suicides each day. However, in May 2012, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of VA. On September 5, 2012, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, represented pro bono by Morrison & Foerster LLP and Disability Rights Advocates, submitted a petition for writ of certiorari requesting the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision. The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether the Veterans Judicial Review Act allows Veterans to challenge in federal court the systemic delays in the VA’s provision of mental health care and death and disability compensation. On January 7, the Supreme Court announced that it denied the petition for writ of certiorari, thereby bringing an end to this landmark case. The issue of prompt PTSD care is vital for recently returning veterans. Up to 30 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans may return home with PTSD, according to a recent Stanford University Study, or as many as 750,000 of the 2.5 million deployed to war in the past 11 years. A new 2008 law, advocated by VCS, provides up to five years of free VA care after deployment to a war zone. A new 2010 VA regulation, prompted by a VCS petition to VA, provides streamlined PTSD claims processing based on scientific research. Suicidal Veterans and Veterans who don’t know where to get help for PTSD can call VA’s Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK. ###