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Thursday, May 19, 2011 07:43 pm

Court blasts VA for mental health failings

Orders Veterans Affairs to address weeks-long delays in suicide, PTSD treatment

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Every day, 18 veterans in the United States commit suicide, while another 1,000 attempt suicide each month.

That’s according to a federal district court which recently ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to address long delays experienced by veterans seeking mental health services. The decision, issued in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Calif., could affect how local veterans get help for mental illness.

“The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the majority’s opinion. “No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.”

The case originated in 2007 with two veterans advocacy groups – Veterans United for Truth in California and Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C. – which filed suit against the VA because of weeks-long delays experienced by veterans seeking mental health services. They argued – and the appellate court agreed – that delaying veterans’ treatment violates the constitutional right to due process.

“Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals and are given no opportunity to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care,” Reinhardt wrote. “For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough.”

The ruling calls on the VA to ensure that veterans receive mental health services in a timely manner, while those with “urgent mental health problems, particularly those at imminent risk of suicide” receive immediate care. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the case is the requirement for the VA to provide an appeals process for waitlisted veterans “to explain their need for earlier treatment to a qualified individual.”

Although the VA developed a five-year plan in 2004 to improve mental health services, Reinhardt blasted the VA’s lack of progress in suicide prevention.

“Mental health screening is now a component of the primary health care examination when veterans first enroll in the VA, but that screening is not rigorous and does not always evaluate veterans’ risk of suicide,” he wrote. “Although veterans are screened for PTSD, depression, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and problem drinking, their risk of suicide is not automatically assessed…There were, however, no suicide prevention officers at any of the approximately 800 community-based outpatient clinics, where most veterans receive their medical care.”

The opinion also identifies a growing need for such services as members of the military return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“…[A]n unprecedented number of newly-discharged veterans have been diagnosed as suffering from mental disorders, in particular PTSD, as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Reinhardt writes, adding that one out of three service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan visited a VA facility seeking mental health services within a year of returning from duty.

Springfield has a VA Outpatient Clinic at 5850 S. Sixth Street and a Vet Center at 1227 S. Ninth Street. Traveling mental health specialists provide mental health services at those locations, along with visiting several homeless shelters in the city. The nearest VA hospital is in St. Louis.

Maureen Dymon, a Chicago-based spokesperson for the VA, says there is no wait for Illinois veterans seeking mental health services.

“They can walk in and get mental health services in 10 minutes,” she says.

The VA told the appellate court that it has hired about 3,800 additional mental health professionals in the past few years, it is not currently facing a budget crisis, and has adequate money to “meet the mission requirements.”

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case to determine whether to appeal, but Charles Miller, spokesperson for DOJ’s civil division, says no determination has been made yet.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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