WASHINGTON, May 13, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In a legal opinion published this week, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals harshly criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for "unchecked incompetence," in its handling of veterans' benefits claims, specifically those relating to mental health issues. The critical review was rendered as the San Francisco court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a class action suit filed by the nonprofit "Veterans for Common Sense" and "Veterans United for Truth" organizations against VA, the U.S. Attorney General and others. In a 104-page opinion, its author, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, repeatedly took VA to task for long delays in adjudicating claims and delivering needed mental health care to wounded warriors. "Veterans who return home suffering from psychological maladies are entitled by law to disability benefits to sustain themselves and their families as they regain their health," said Judge Reinhardt in his opening paragraphs. "Yet it takes an average of more than four years for a veteran to fully adjudicate a claim for benefits." In a reference to the elevated rate of suicide and suicide attempts among veterans, Reinhardt continued, "During that time many claims are mooted by deaths."
In recognition of root cause of the oft-publicized claims backlog crisis, Reinhardt continued, "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."
The Ninth Circuit Court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to "conduct evidentiary hearings in order to determine what procedures would remedy the existing due process violations in the VBA claims adjudication process."
Reacting to the court decision, Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion in Washington, said, "it has long been apparent that to us – and now to the court – that we have a long way to go in addressing the needs of our nation's veterans. Through feedback from our 2.4 million members and our annual visits to VA regional offices and medical centers throughout the country, we have been gathering evidence to support the supposition that systematic failures have been and are occurring.
"However, we of The American Legion," he continued, "want it known that we are already working with the overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs to alleviate this problem and stand ready to lend any additional assistance we can in advance of court-ordered 'evidentiary hearings' and subsequent actions. This matter is far too critical to await 'due process.'"
Annually, through its System Worth Saving Task Force program, The American Legion visits dozens of VA medical facilities nationwide, working with administrators to uncover inadequacies and improve the delivery of services. Through reviews at VA Regional Offices, The American Legion gains intimate knowledge of VA claims adjudication and appeals processes and the increasing challenges faced by the agency. Armed with this firsthand knowledge, The American Legion often testifies before Congress as the legislators seek tangible solutions.
"When the VA asked for more staff, we stood before Congress and supported that request," said American Legion Legislative Director Tim Tetz. "Based on our findings and surveys from the field," he continued, "we pushed for more training money, better offices, and IT solutions – all with accountability and service to the veteran in mind."
Further testimony to the proactive role being taken by The American legion came from Verna Jones, Director of the organization's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. "When Secretary Shinseki joined us during our 2010 National Convention," she said, "we cheered and pledged our support when he vowed to 'break the back' of the disability claims backlog.
"But pledges are one thing, action is another," said Jones, urging VA to continue its campaign to fix the problem. "Rather than appeal [the court ruling] or drag the legal case out further," she said, "the VA should be willing to sit down with The American Legion and other advocates to resolve this issue. The blame doesn't rest with VA, Congress, or the veterans. It is the process that is broken. That is what needs to be addressed."
In response to the finding of the Ninth Circuit, the House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) will conduct a hearing focusing on resources and aids available to those veterans suffering from mental trauma.
SOURCE The American Legion