Accusing it of "unchecked incompetence," a federal appeals court in San Francisco ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday to overhaul the way it provides mental health care and disability benefits.
Noting that 18 veterans commit suicide every day, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, "There comes a time when the political branches have so completely and chronically failed to respect the People's constitutional rights that the courts must be willing to enforce them."
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations," Reinhardt said on behalf of the three-judge panel, which ruled 2-1 against the VA.
In 2007, two veterans' groups sued the VA in federal court, accusing the government of failing to provide proper care for hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"This is a huge victory," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, which brought the case. "All we can do at this point is urge President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to work closely with Congress so that no veteran is delayed or denied."
"There are too many suicides," Sullivan said.
A VA spokesperson reached for comment refused to comment for this story and said all media inquiries are being referred to the Justice Department, which tried the case. The Justice Deparmtent did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
The ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will not provide immediate relief. It orders the trial court judge, Samuel Conti, to work with the VA and veterans groups to develop a system that provides veterans with better and faster access to mental health care and disability benefits and ensures that suicidal vets are seen immediately.
Amy Fairweather, policy director for the San Francisco veterans service organization Swords to Plowshares, said she was encouraged by the strong language in Reinhardt's ruling.
"The suicides are just stunning and outrageous and heart-breaking. This is an issue that is about saving lives and it deserves passion and compassion in our treatment of our veterans," she said.
A Bay Citizen investigation published last fall found three times as many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were dying at home than killed in the two wars combined.