Veterans’ Groups Turned away by Supreme Court on Mental Health Services

VA

January 7, 2013; Source: Reuters

On Friday, the Supreme Court denied to take up a case brought by nonprofit groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth Inc. The veterans’ nonprofit groups claim that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is breaking applicable law by failing to process combat veterans’ mental health claims in a timely manner (and/or wrongly denying other claims). The groups say the VA is often taking years to respond and that this is contributing to an epidemic of suicides.

In 2011, a federal appeals court ruled in support of the plaintiffs, finding that the VA had demonstrated “unchecked incompetence” in reviewing claims and ordering the VA to completely reform its mental health system. About one year later, in May of 2012, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that earlier ruling and stated that such reforms must come about via legislation, not via a court decision. Now that the Supreme Court has denied the petitioners’ request for a hearing, that Ninth Circuit decision is the final word on the matter (unless Congress takes up the issue with new legislation).

What gives? The U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the VA, may have correctly argued the technical dictates of the law and persuaded the Supreme Court to deny the nonprofit groups a hearing, but certainly neither the president nor Congress has addressed this incomprehensible rash of veteran suicides. Can either be expected to do so given the current political deadlock in Washington?

In the view of some veterans’ advocates, our system of checks and balances has failed those servicemembers returning home with major mental health disabilities rather than honoring their sacrifices. Incredibly, this is despite the fact that the VA itself is front and center in sounding the alarm at the rate of suicide among veterans, which amounts to an astounding 6,500 per year, 18 per day, or one every 80 minutes—or roughly one out of every five suicides in America. According to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, “five of those 18 [veterans who commit suicide every day] are under VA care at the time they take their lives.”

If the Supreme Court won’t mandate that the VA improve its record on mental health services for combat veterans, will Congress and the president? NPQ welcomes your voice on this important matter. –Louis Altman

About

Louis Altman

Lou Altman is an Employment Specialist with Gateway Community Industries, Inc., a nonprofit human services agency in Ulster County, New York. A licensed attorney, Louis volunteers teaching poetry at Gateway and is currently a student in the Master’s Rehabilitation Counseling program (distance learning) at SUNY-Buffalo.

  • Sanford D Cook

    Thanks for covering this story. We spent 5 1/2 years getting to this point, and the Supremes won’t hear our case.

    We blieve that there are Congresspersons who will work with us on changingth law, but it will not be easy.

    Current law gives the Secretary of the DVA monarchical powers, in that his decisions concerning benefits cannot be reviewed by the Courts, Congress, or even the President. The Supremes have apparently determined that every decision at a lower level within the department are the same as a decision by the Secretary, thus they likewise cannot be reviewed by the courts.

    We, of course, did not ask that individual decisions be reviewed. We asked the courts to step in and help us with the shameful performance of the DVA overall in an attempt to stop the neglect of these citizens who have given so much to this country. The Supremes chose to misinterpret our request and then apply the law to their misinterpretation.

    18 suicides a day is merely the tip of the iceberg. The untreated wounds of war–untreated because treatment is denied by the DVA–are contributing to hte appalling increase in homelessness and substance abuse among veterans. They also contribute to the rise in criminality among this polulation.

    As it stands, every one of 23M veterans must face this monolithic and non-responsive department on his or her own, unsupported by counsel until well into the game, and almost guaranteed an initial disallowance of their claim. Claimants facing the immediate crisis of PTSD, and needing immediate help, must wait months even to get an initial response.

    They can die for their country, but their country cannot help them live.

    Sanford D Cook, LTC USA (Ret)
    Vice Chair, Veterans United for Truth, Inc. (co-plaintiff in this case)

  • Mr. Northcross

    I am a Marine Corps Veteran diagnosed as manic depreesic at age 17 which we know is now called bipolar disorder. I enlisted in the military at 21 and was on active duty for 18 months before I developed alcoholism and with a chemical imbalance was making bad decision which led to 2,25 years of confinement, a general court martial, and a bad conduct dishcharge. I still don’t know how I passed the pshyciatric evaluation to obtain entry to MCRD Parris Island. I am still proud of my service to my country, and I pray for my fellow service members all around the world in combat or non-combat occupations that God watches over us.

    ,
    Semper Fi,

    K.W. Northcross, BSSBM, University of Phoenix, 10/2011