WASHINGTON — Ending more than five years of litigation on the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling in a class-action lawsuit that claimed VA does not provide mental healthcare in a timely fashion.
At the beginning of January, the nation’s highest court said it would not review a decision by the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had held that it lacked jurisdiction to overhaul VA’s mental-health system, as requested in the lawsuit. Instead, it said in Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) vs. Eric K. Shinseki, that the responsibility falls to the executive branch and Congress.
Saying the case was “lost on a technicality,” the plaintiffs responded that, “VA remains mired in crisis, and veterans will continue fighting to reform VA so that no veteran waits for VA healthcare or benefits.”
In that statement, Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) also said, “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.”
The statement cited “significant improvements” in some areas, such as a suicide hotline set up by VA, but said the crisis continues because of underfunding and lack of congressional oversight.
An earlier ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco had given plaintiffs hope, saying that veterans could look to the courts to seek relief from their claims that VA failed to provide adequate or timely care to veterans in need. The decision raised questions about the appropriate role of the three branches of the U.S. government, however, which were addressed by the full circuit court.
“VCS’s complaint sounds a plaintive cry for help, but it has been misdirected to us,” 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the majority. “As much as we may wish for expeditious improvement in the way the VA handles mental healthcare and service-related disability compensation, we cannot exceed our jurisdiction to accomplish it.”
The advocacy groups VCS and Veterans United for Truth (VUFT) filed the lawsuit in 2007, claiming that delays in mental healthcare too often result in the suicide of the servicemember seeking help, which violates veterans’ rights to due process.
Legislation that would streamline VA’s community care programs into one program and expand VA’s caregiver program to veterans of all eras was signed into law earlier this month..
The good news from a recent consultant study is that, overall, the VA healthcare system is generally equal or better than others when inpatient and outpatient quality is measured.