Senators Criticize VA Approach to Reviewing Sexual Assault Claims

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the notification from the department “inappropriate for the task at hand given the enormity and sensitivity of this issue.” Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the notification from the department “inappropriate for the task at hand given the enormity and sensitivity of this issue.” Susan Walsh/AP

The Veterans Affairs Department is facing criticism from two senators over its approach to reviewing previously denied disability claims related to sexual trauma.

VA recently sent letters to affected vets telling them to contact the department if they wanted a review of their previously denied claims for post-traumatic stress disorder based on sexual trauma they experienced during military service. The brief letter asks vets to submit an enclosed form and any additional evidence to support the claim if they want a review. It directs vets to contact their local VA regional office, but does not provide any contact information. It also does not mention the department’s ongoing initiative to improve the claims process for victims of military sexual trauma.

In a June 21 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the notification from the department “inappropriate for the task at hand given the enormity and sensitivity of this issue.” The senators criticized VA for failing to include contact information, or an explanation of its reform efforts. “Veterans who may have had their claims for PTSD based on military sexual trauma improperly adjudicated may be hesitant to trust VA to review their claims without reassurance that VA will undertake a more comprehensive, practical and sensitive approach, which utilizes all of the department’s recent efforts, to address this issue,” Sanders and Tester wrote.

They also want VA to provide information on how well-equipped call agents are to deal adequately with vets who request reviews. “At a recent staff-level briefing, VA indicated a significant number of callers are still unable to successfully connect with a call agent,” the senators’ letter stated. “For these reasons, we are concerned that veterans will be hesitant to request review without the ability to quickly connect to an experienced and compassionate individual standing ready to address their specific situations.” The lawmakers also criticized the department for not giving advance notice of the letter to veterans service organizations before sending it.

VA has received the Sanders-Tester letter and is working on a response, according to a statement from the department. “VA is committed to serving our nation’s veterans by accurately adjudicating claims based on MST in a thoughtful and caring manner,” the statement said. The department said any vet who wants a review of a previously submitted PTSD claim due to sexual trauma in the military can call 1-800-827-1000.

The department in 2011 reviewed 400 PTSD-MST claims and found that nearly 25 percent of them were denied without being adequately processed. In 2012, the department received 4,005 PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma; 53 percent of those compensation claims were approved.

VA, which provides free treatment to vets suffering from mental and physical conditions related to MST without a disability rating or documentation, has tried since 2011 to improve the processing of military sexual trauma claims and to enhance training for claims examiners. The department, through the leadership of Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits and an Air Force vet, increased the number of MST claims granted to about 52 percent by the end of February 2013, comparable to the 59 percent approval rating for all PTSD claims. Prior to VA’s reform effort, the approval rate for MST claims was about 34 percent in June 2011, when it first started tracking disability claims related to military sexual trauma. As part of that initiative, the department pledged in April to review previously denied PTSD claims based on MST.

Sanders and Tester singled out Hickey for praise in their letter to Shinseki. “We commend VA, particularly Undersecretary Allison Hickey, for undertaking serious efforts to improve claims adjudication,” they stated.

Tester is the lead sponsor of the 2013 Ruth Moore Act, which would make it easier for vets seeking disability benefits through MST claims by relaxing the evidentiary standards for submitting a claim. The legislation would allow a vet’s own testimony in addition to documentation from a mental health professional to serve as sufficient proof that service-related sexual trauma occurred and caused physical or mental ailments. It also directs VA to provide explanations for denied claims related to PTSD-MST. Tester’s bill as well as the companion legislation the House passed in June direct VA to provide extensive reporting to lawmakers and veterans on the MST claims process from soup to nuts, as well as information on employee training. The House bill, shepherded by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, does not require VA to relax its evidentiary standards but contains nonbinding language urging the department to do so.

Post-traumatic stress disorder claims stemming from sexual assault face a higher burden of proof than combat-related PTSD claims. The government in 2010 relaxed the documentation standards for combat-related PTSD claims because too many vets were unable to provide all the necessary corroborating evidence that their diagnosis was related to a specific event. A claim of PTSD related to a vet’s “fear of hostile military or terrorist activity” consistent with the circumstances of the vet’s service experience and supported by a mental health professional is now sufficient evidence to link PTSD with military service.

As with other PTSD claims, VA initially reviews the vet’s service record for an account of the incident. Many sexual assaults in the military, as in the civilian world, still go underreported. In light of that, the department has developed procedures to help veterans filing claims provide the proper documentation, said Curtis Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, on June 12 before a congressional panel. He said the department accepts evidence from other sources, including statements from family members and other service members; proof of mental health counseling; and a request for transfer to another military duty assignment.

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