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Originally published May 12 2012

Appeals court reverses overhaul of veterans healthcare

by J. D. Heyes

(NaturalNews) The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is no different than any other government agency, in that it is a slow, bureaucracy-heavy, perpetually under-resourced leviathan that isn't as responsive to its constituency as it was designed to be. But that doesn't mean the VA, as it is most commonly known as, purposefully shirks its duty to care for our nation's veterans.

In fact, that's how a federal appeals court sees it too. An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed an earlier ruling by a lower court that the VA should be forced to revise and upgrade the way it takes care of vets with combat-related mental health issues, Reuters reported.

In a 10-1 decision, the appeals panel of judges said it could not conclude that even though it sometimes takes years to address mental health claims, the agency was acting in an unconstitutional manner. The fact is, the VA is simply overburdened and underfunded, if you can believe that.

Further, the court said it was up to Congress or the president to make changes to the speed in which the VA handles veterans' claims. Nonprofit groups had challenged the VA, saying the slow manner in which it operated "contributed to the despair that led to roughly 6,500 suicides last year by U.S. veterans," the report said.

'Unchecked incompetence?'

"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," Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the majority.

"There can be no doubt that securing exemplary care for our nation's veterans is a moral imperative. But Congress and the President are in far better position 'to care for him who shall have borne the battle,'" he added, citing President Abraham Lincoln.

The larger appeals panel ruling overturned an earlier 2-1 decision by a panel of the same court a year ago.

Last May, the three-judge panel ruled that the VA's delays in the way the department handled mental health claims, which often delayed care for as much as four years, was akin to "unchecked incompetence."

The same panel instructed the lower federal court which heard the initial complaint to make sure the VA adopted new policies ensuring timely or even immediate mental health care when presented with such cases.

Not what Congress intended

In his majority decision, Bybee said that in order for the panel to uphold the previous ruling, it would "embroil the district court in the day-to-day operation of the VA and, of necessity, require the district court to monitor individual benefits determinations."

Two nonprofit groups which brought the case - Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth - said the VA's inability to ensure timely care for vets was a major contributing factor to their high suicide rates. The VA itself, according to its internal estimates, says an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide.

But there are other daunting figures. Some 25 percent of the roughly 25 million veterans use the VA health system, which comprises 153 hospitals and some 800 outpatient clinics, according to court documents.

The one dissenting opinion in the ruling reversal, Judge Mary Schroeder, said the majority "leaves millions of veterans - present, past, and future - without any available redress for claims that they face years of delay in having their rights to hard-earned benefits determined," she wrote.

"No one could think this is just or what Congress intended," she added.

For its part, the VA, on its Web site, says it has 20,000 healthcare professionals dedicated to caring for mental health patients alone, with another 1,900 on the way.

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