(CN) – Delays in the treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues violate the constitutional rights of the nation’s soldiers, the 9th Circuit ruled, taking the rare step of ordering the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement sweeping changes in the way it handles referrals and claims that are too often “mooted by death.”
“When the government harms its veterans by the deprivation at issue here, they are entitled to turn to the courts for relief,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a 103-page ruling Tuesday. “Indeed, our constitution established an independent judiciary precisely for situations like this, in which a vulnerable group, that is being denied its rights by an unresponsive government, has nowhere else to turn. No more critical example exists than when the government fails to afford its injured or wounded veterans their constitutional rights.
Wars, including wars of choice, have many costs. Affording our veterans their constitutional rights is a primary one.”
The advocacy groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth filed a class action against the VA in California District Court in 2007, seeking redress for the “unchallengeable and interminable delays” that many veterans face when applying for mental health care.
Up to 18 veterans commit suicide everyday, many of them while awaiting a health care referral that can take months, according to the ruling.
Some 1,467 veterans died while their appeals were pending in just six months from October 2007 to April 2008.
The veterans groups requested a permanent injunction to force the VA to reform its claims process, but U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti found that such an order was beyond his power.
On appeal, the three-judge panel in San Francisco ruled 2-1 to reverse in part. The panel agreed with the District Court that it had limited power to order reforms based on the groups’ statutory claims under the Administrative Procedures Act, but it strongly disagreed with Conti on the veterans’ constitutional claims.
“The United States Constitution confers upon veterans and their surviving relatives a right to the effective provision of mental health care and to the just and timely adjudication of their claims for health care and service-connected death and disability benefits,” Reinhardt wrote. “Although the terms of the Administrative Procedure Act preclude veterans from obtaining relief in our court for their statutory claims, their entitlements to the provision of health care and to veterans’ benefits are property interests protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The deprivation of those property interests by delaying their provision, without justification and with any procedure to expedite, violates veterans’ constitutional rights. Because neither Congress nor the executive has corrected the behavior that yields these constitutional violations, the courts must provide plaintiffs with a remedy.”
Writing in dissent, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski argued that the ruling overstepped the court’s power and “tramples over … strict jurisdictional limits.”
“The majority hijacks the Department of Veterans Affair’s mental health treatment and disability compensation programs and installs a district judge as reluctant commandant-in-chief,” he wrote.