* Veterans say VA slow in processing mental health claims
* They say delays contributed to veterans' suicides
* Lower court had ruled against veterans
By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider a challenge by veterans who said delays by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in processing combat-related mental health claims contributed to suicides by veterans.
Without comment, the court let stand a May 2012 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, which said it could not conclude that the VA broke the law by letting some veterans' healthcare claims stagnate for several years, and that only Congress or the president could direct changes.
That 10-1 decision reversed a 2-1 ruling by a panel of that court a year earlier that ordered the VA to ensure that suicidal veterans are seen immediately. The smaller panel cited the agency's "unchecked incompetence" in handling post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health claims.
Non-profit groups including Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth Inc had argued that because the agency took so long to process claims, it contributed to the despair that has led to the roughly 6,500 suicides among U.S. veterans each year.
In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the non-profit groups had said that the 9th Circuit erred in finding no jurisdiction over challenges to the VA's "Kafkaesque" procedures and failure to provide medical benefits and resolve service-related benefits claims in a timely manner.
The U.S. Department of Justice, representing the VA, said the 9th Circuit decision was correct, and that the White House and Congress are in a better position than judges to address the VA's day-to-day operational issues.
The case is Veterans for Common Sense et al v. Shinseki et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-296. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech)