The court also said it often takes weeks for a suicidal vet to get a first appointment.
The “unchecked incompetence” in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims is unconstitutional, the court said.
“No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel. “Having chosen to honor and provide for our veterans by guaranteeing them the mental healthcare and other critical benefits to which they are entitled, the government may not deprive them of that support through unchallengeable and interminable delays.”
The 9th Circuit ruling overturned a 2008 verdict of U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti.
After a two-week trial, Conti ruled that a lawsuit filed by two veterans groups seeking a judicial order for an overhaul of the Veterans Affairs Department was “misdirected.”
Conti also didn't find a system-wide crisis in which healthcare is not being provided within a reasonable time.
The appeals court, however, said there's ample evidence that the department is falling down in its duty to provide timely care for the mental health needs of the country's military veterans.
“The delays have worsened in recent years, as the influx of injured troops returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed an unprecedented strain on the VA, and has overwhelmed the system,” Reinhardt wrote.
The appeals court sent the case back to Conti in the trial court and ordered him to work with the VA and the veterans groups toward a new mental healthcare plan that implements a speedier process to appeal denied benefits, provides timely mental health treatment and ensures suicidal vets are seen immediately.
If the VA fails to come up with an acceptable plan, the appeals court told Conti to fashion his own plan.