by Kristina Derro
Veterans Disability Lawyer
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unleashed its fury on the VA last week in a decision where the judges ruled that the “unchecked incompetence” by the VA had led to poor mental health care and slow processing of disability claims for veterans. Two nonprofit organizations, Veterans United for Truth and Veterans for Common Sense, filed a lawsuit seeking to force VA to make changes to the way it treats veterans with mental health disabilities and handles compensation claims.
The Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs’ case that the VA must put mental health initiatives into effect throughout the entire system and change the way it adjudicates disability compensation claims in its various regional offices. The Court cited to statistics that it often takes weeks for a suicidal veteran to get a first appointment at a VA and that it often takes VA an average of four years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed to veterans.
During the trial, emails between high-ranking VA officials were entered into evidence, revealing that VA was aware of the high suicide rates among veterans and that it harbored a desire to keep quiet the number of veterans under its care who attempt suicide. The Ninth Circuit opinion stated that “[n]o more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation”. The Court found that there were no suicide prevention officers at any of the VA’s 800 community-based outpatient clinics, the screening for suicide by the VA was not rigorous, and that 70% of VA medical centers did not have systems to track potentially suicidal veterans.
The Ninth Circuit also wrote a scathing opinion regarding the way VA handled disability compensation claims. The opinion noted that the processing of an initial claim usually took longer than the 120-day goal set by the VA itself, and that regional offices take more than a year to certify appealed claims which the Court found was “a merely ministerial act”. The Court found that no official with VA “was able to provide the court with a sufficient justification for the delays”.
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