May 11, 2011 in City

Court: VA’s mental health care reform is overdue

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The parents of two veterans who killed themselves while under the care of Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2008 welcomed an appeals court order for mental health care reform nationally.

On Tuesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to dramatically overhaul its mental health care system.

In the strongly worded ruling, the court said it takes the department an average of four years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed veterans.

The “unchecked incompetence” in handling the flood of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims is unconstitutional, the court said.

“It’s long overdue,” said Steve Senescall, whose son, Lucas Senescall, a 26-year-old Navy veteran with a history of mental illness, killed himself in July 2008 after seeking help at Spokane VA.

The deaths of Senescall and Richard Kinsey-Young, a 35-year-old Navy veteran who killed himself in Rathdrum, Idaho, after a 16-month struggle with pain and depression, were part of a rash of veteran suicides both nationally and in the Inland Northwest.

From July 2007 to July 2008, 21 veterans in the Spokane VA service area killed themselves, including 14 who had contact with the medical center, according to Department of Veterans Affairs records.

However, the number of veteran suicides in the Spokane service area dramatically decreased to six in 2009, following news accounts and improvements in the VA health care system nationally.

Spokespeople for Spokane VA Medical Center and the VA’s Northwest Health Network office in Portland were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

The 9th Circuit ruling this week overturned a 2008 verdict by U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti. After a two-week trial, Conti ruled that a lawsuit filed by two veterans groups seeking a judicial order for an overhaul of the VA was misdirected.

Conti said he was powerless to act because Congress narrowly limited the authority courts have in reviewing VA benefit decisions.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, the VA could ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision with a special 11-judge panel; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case; or abide by the ruling.

“I cannot put entire blame on (VA health care providers),” said Beverly Thibodeau, Kinsey-Young’s mother. “But I feel they should have taken his call for help a little more seriously than they did.”

Thibodeau said from her home in Panama City, Fla., that she believes her son was overmedicated by VA providers treating his back and shoulder injuries.

“They just did not take care of his mental health needs, particularly in the last two months of his life,” she said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on Wednesday that it “is abundantly clear” that VA must do better.

“But we must also do more than just point fingers, we have to roll up our sleeves and fix the problems plaguing the department,” said Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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