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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Accusing Congress and the president of neglecting to take appropriate action to save veterans' lives, a federal appeals court called for drastic improvements to the Department of Veterans' Affairs mental health care system.
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in a 104-page decision issued on Tuesday, cited the failure of the political branches to address what it called the VA's "egregious problems" and "unchecked incompetence" in delivering mental health services to veterans.
That failure, the three-judge panel held, violated the veterans' due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The court cited examples of veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder having to wait over eight weeks for mental health referrals, with some committing suicide in the interim.
Over 84,000 veterans are on waiting lists for mental health care, the court wrote, with no procedure for challenging the delays. The court added that those delays can mean "the difference between life and death," with an average of 18 veterans committing suicide every day.
Two nonprofit organizations, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth Inc, had sued the VA in 2007 over the government's "shameful failures" to care for wounded veterans. The California district court dismissed the groups' claims, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to implement or meddle with the agency's mental health plan.
The three-judge panel comprised of 9th Circuit judges Alex Kozinski, Procter Hug and Stephen Reinhardt acknowledged that the court's intervention in the agency's affairs was an "extraordinary step" and one better suited for Congress or the president.
In the opinion, written by Reinhardt, the panel concluded that the political branches had "so completely and chronically failed" to respect veterans' rights that the court had to intervene.
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations," the opinion said.
The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Heather Moser, a lawyer for the veterans' groups, said the decision was "monumental" for recognizing that veterans' have a constitutional right to mental health care in a timely manner.
The 9th Circuit panel sent the case back to the lower court to determine what changes are necessary to ensure that veterans in need of mental health care receive prompt treatment and those with urgent problems receive immediate help.
Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Jerry Norton