Veterans supporters disappointed in appeals court ruling on VA mental health system

Judges say it is up to Congress to solve problems in treatment system From The Monterey County Herald By KEVIN HOWE Herald Staff Writer Posted:   05/08/2012 05:16:42 PM PDT Updated:   05/09/2012 08:33:49 AM PDT

Supporters of veterans’ programs expressed disappointment Tuesday about the rejection of a lawsuit that sought to force the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to overhaul a system of mental health care for combat veterans.

In a 10-1 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, judges found that it is up to Congress, not the courts, to solve problems in the VA’s treatment system, overturning an earlier ruling that would have forced the government to speed up handling of treatment requests and benefit claims.

“I think the court voted where they thought the law should be worked with, rather than the re-implementation of it,” said Tom Griffin, director of the Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office. “Law is made by the Congress, not the courts. The courts’ job is to assure legal implementation of the laws.”

He said the 9th Circuit erred in its ruling because the VA’s implementation of its programs has not followed the laws passed by Congress.

“The law does not need changing — the implementation of it by the VA does,” Griffin said. “The sad truth is that the veterans are being hurt by this kind of legal chicanery, are not in a position to do much about it and will continue to suffer more — that is the shame of this decision.”

“Now we’ll have to wait for Congress to pass a law allocating the funds for more mental health professionals, and you know that will take time,” said Karl P. Karl, former counselor at the Veterans Transition

The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a veterans group that alleged the VA’s system could be blamed for suicides and other suffering because of its slow approach to treating returning soldiers.

In its decision, the 9th Circuit held that a federal statute, Section 511a, precludes veterans from going to court over benefit claims, other than to the Court of Veterans Appeals.

Gordon Erspamer, who represented the veterans groups, said Tuesday the verdict will most likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He said the circuit court’s interpretation of the federal statute was “an extremely broad construction” that meant “a decision by the VA granted on claims is not reviewable in court other than the VA court. It somehow got construed as applying to anything to do with veterans’ issues. It was expanded way beyond its meaning.”

If the court’s interpretation is upheld, Erspamer said, “veterans will be the only population group in America that can’t address their constitutional rights in court.”

The VA court only reviews claims, he said, and veterans’ organizations are not eligible to come before it, only individual claimants.

The lawsuit addressed the VA’s general administration and practices, he said, not individual claims.

Erspamer said his clients have 90 days to file a petition to the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Michael L. Jackson, spokesman for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, which includes the VA Clinic at Fort Ord, said VA attorneys could not comment on the case because it is considered ongoing.

Veterans Affairs is in the process of expanding its mental health services staff nationwide by nearly 10 percent, Jackson said.

Last month, the VA announced the hiring of an additional 1,900 to its mental health staff, including marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors, he said.

Recruitment in those two fields will be done at the local level, said the VA, and the new professionals will provide mental health diagnostic and psychosocial treatment services for veterans and their families in coordination with existing VA nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

Of the new hires, about 1,600 will be mental health care professionals and 300 will be support staff, Jackson said.

“This was not necessarily because of this (court) case,” he said, “but because we’re anticipating such a great wave of new vets since the (Iraq) war has ended.”

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