05/13/2011 07:24 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Finally Giving Our Troops the Support They Really Need

Chances are if you went out on the street and asked every passerby if they believed our government should support our troops, they would say, "Of course!" If you had the opportunity to go into Congress and poll every representative and senator if they support the troops, they would fall over themselves to proclaim they do to the utmost degree. Why then, does a federal court, (a much maligned branch of our government) have to rule that veterans have a due process right to mental health care? That is what happened on May 11, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals took a stand for veterans that has been shameful years in coming. It ruled that the Veterans Administration has been violating the due process rights of veterans in denying them meaningful access to critically needed mental health care.

"The VA's unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough. No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations."

The court places at the heart of its decision the outrageous number of suicides among veterans. "On an average day, eighteen veterans of our nation's armed forces take their own lives. Of those, roughly one quarter are enrolled with the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. Among all veterans enrolled in the VA system, an additional 1000 attempt suicide each month. Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with depression or PTSD are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals and are given no opportunity to request or demonstrate their need for expedited care. For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough."

The suit was brought in 2007 by an Austin based veterans' organization, Veterans for Common Sense, headed by Paul Sullivan, a veteran of the Gulf War, and the California-based Veterans United for Truth. The nonprofit groups asserted that the department was not addressing the flood of psychologically troubled or physically injured troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had inadequate services at veterans clinics and had allowed a huge backlog of compensation applications. 
"The VA still has no plan," Sullivan said on Wednesday. He called the decision "a landmark and precedent-setting that gives our veterans a constitutional right to due process when fighting for VA health care and disability compensation."

The author of the decision, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, wrote that he regretted that political inaction had forced the court to intervene in what the "political branches" should have addressed and were given more than enough time to address. "We would have preferred Congress or the President to have remedied the VA's egregious problems without our intervention when evidence of the Department's harmful shortcomings and its failure to to properly address the needs of our veterans first came to light years ago."

The court singled out for criticism: The VA's failure to implement its strategy to reduce epidemic suicide numbers among veterans; and its failure to staff suicide prevention officers at the VA's 800 outpatient clinics. (As of Wednesday, the Austin VA clinic still had no suicide prevention officer.)

The VA could appeal the 2-1 decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul Sullivan called on President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to sit down with veterans, members of Congress and academic experts and "fix VA."

It is disgraceful that a court has to force Congress and the administration to provide our veterans with the care they need as a result of serving our country. If we support our troops, why is it a federal court that is making those words more than lip service?