By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court has reversed a ruling that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must overhaul how it cares for veterans with combat-related mental health care illnesses.
By a 10-1 decision, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said it could not conclude that the VA's treatment of veterans, which sometimes causes claims to remain unaddressed for several years, was unconstitutional.
The panel said only Congress or the President had authority to direct changes to speed up how veterans are treated. Nonprofit groups contended the VA contributed to the despair that led to roughly 6,500 suicides a year by U.S. veterans.
"As much as we may wish for expeditious improvement in the way the VA handles mental healthcare and service-related disability compensation, we cannot exceed our jurisdiction to accomplish it," Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the majority.
Citing President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, he added: "There can be no doubt that securing exemplary care for our nation's veterans is a moral imperative. But Congress and the President are in far better position 'to care for him who shall have borne the battle.'"
Monday's decision overturned a 2-1 ruling last May by a panel of the same court.
That panel said the VA's treatment delays in handling post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims, often causing benefits to be delayed for up to four years, reflected "unchecked incompetence."
It had demanded that the district court ensure the VA implement appropriate safeguards to ensure timely and, when necessary, immediate mental health care.
Bybee, however, said that to uphold the May 2011 ruling would "embroil the district court in the day-to-day operation of the VA and, of necessity, require the district court to monitor individual benefits determinations."
HIGH RATE OF SUICIDES
The case was brought by two nonprofit groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth.
They claimed the VA's failure to provide timely treatment was a factor behind a high suicide rate among veterans. The VA has estimated that 18 veterans commit suicide per day.
Suicide accounted for 34,598 U.S. deaths in 2007, making it the country's 10th-leading cause of death, according to the government's National Institute of Mental Health.
About one quarter of the roughly 25 million U.S. veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system, which includes 153 hospitals and 800 outpatient clinics, according to the last May's ruling.
A lawyer for the nonprofit groups did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The VA also did not immediately respond.
Judge Mary Schroeder dissented from Monday's decision.
The majority "leaves millions of veterans - present, past, and future - without any available redress for claims that they face years of delay in having their rights to hard-earned benefits determined," she wrote.
"No one could think this is just or what Congress intended."
Bybee was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote the original 2-1 panel ruling, and was joined by Judge Procter Hug. Both were appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter. Neither sat on the 11-judge panel that ruled on Monday. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who dissented from the original ruling, did sit on the larger panel.
The case is Veterans for Common Sense et al v. Shinseki et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 08-16728.
(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York and Lily Kuo in Washington; editing by Bill Trott and Todd Eastham)