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Ninth Circuit Can't Order VA Mental Health Fixes

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on May 08, 2012 7:02 AM

The Ninth Circuit can't order a major overhaul of the VA's mental health care system.

A group of 11 appeals court judges reached this conclusion Monday, affirmatively overruling a May 2011 decision stating otherwise. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit had originally ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to institute drastic mental health care reforms.

But on reconsideration, the Ninth Circuit has decided it simply does not have the jurisdiction to order such sweeping reforms.

The underlying lawsuit was brought by two veterans' groups seeking better treatment for their members. The VA's mental health care system has been described as incompetent and is often blamed for the large number of veteran suicides. It often takes weeks to get a referral.

Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit was not the proper place to bring this sort of claim, the panel held. Federal courts and special adjudicative bodies can only hear those cases that Congress has given them authority to hear. This authority is rooted in federal statutes.

As the panel explained, federal statutes give exclusive jurisdiction over veterans benefits claims to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Ninth Circuit therefore can't order changes to the VA's mental health care system.

Despite this ruling, plaintiffs are not without recourse. They can either re-file the lawsuit in the proper venue, or they can petition Congress. Given that it took five years to even get to this point, asking Congress to reform the VA's mental health care system is probably their best bet.

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