Is Getting Disability Benefits Too Difficult for Military Sexual Assault Victims?

by U.S. Medicine

September 6, 2012

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — The criteria to obtain VA disability benefits for sexual assault is “completely unrealistic” for most survivors to meet, advocates told a congressional committee at a recent hearing.

“Veterans who file a PTSD claim based on their military sexual trauma have only a 1 in 3 chance of getting their claim approved,” Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former member of the military, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Military sexual assaults have been in the spotlight in recent months. For example, only days after the hearing, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, a Lackland Air Force Base, TX, instructor, was convicted on 28 counts that included rape and sexual assault. Walker was among 12 Lackland instructors under investigation for sexual misconduct.

In April, DoD announced there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault involving military members as either victims or subjects in FY 2011, but earlier this year Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the estimate is likely closer to 19,000 such cases.

Bhagwati and other advocates argue that it is difficult for sexual assault victims to provide the necessary documentation for the claims process. Many victims may not have sought help after the assault and, therefore, have no documentation such as police reports and medical reports. While alternative sources can be used to show that the sexual assault occurred, advocates say they are not always accepted in the claims process.

“During FY 2008, 2009 and 2010, only 32.3% of MST-based PTSD claims were approved by VBA compared to an approval rate of 54.2% of all other PTSD claims during that time,” Bhagwati told the committee.

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network

Claims Adjudication

In 2010, the VA changed regulations on the adjudication of PTSD claims related to combat because of the lack of records in the combat zone. Similar changes were not made for MST claims because it was determined there already are more liberal evidentiary standards for these cases.

Thomas Murphy, director of VBA’s Compensation Service, defended the current PTSD regulations for MST-related claims to the subcommittee and said they provide, “multiple means to establish an occurrence.” What VA has done, however, is initiate “additional training efforts and specialized handling procedures” for claims personnel to ensure these claims are handled appropriately.

One of the additional training efforts is the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) “Challenge Training Program” for newly hired claims processors, which includes a training module on MST. The VBA also announced in July that it is deploying a new model for processing compensation benefits claims. As part of this, claims are routed to one of three segmented lanes, one of which is a special operations lane that will handle claims such as PTSD associated with MST.

Is Getting Disability Benefits Too Difficult for Military Sexual Assault Victims?

At a separate hearing in mid-July before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey explained that VBA is working to improve the handling of these cases and that recent data shows an increase in claims awarded for MST.

“We have increased our grants a full 35% in our MST… because of the direction we did, the actions we took to make those right and to do those right,” she said.

She said officials also are contacting individuals who have had MST-related claims denied to offer a review.

“We are sending letters to everyone we’ve ever denied and saying, ‘This is what we do. We’ve got a new process. If you feel like you were denied in error, please send it to us and we will re-accomplish it.’”

Legislative Change

Advocates suggest that VA could do even more to help victims of sexual assault. Ruth Moore, a former servicemember who said she was raped, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in support of a House bill that would change the burden of proof required for MST survivors to receive benefits. The bill would provide service connection for MST victims if they provide a diagnosis of PTSD and medical documentation that the PTSD was caused by a sexual assault.

Moore said she entered the military in 1987 and was raped twice by her supervisor, contracting chlamydia as a result. She said she was discharged from the military after attempting suicide but that her disability claim was dismissed before she ultimately received filing help from the Disabled American Veterans organization and was awarded a 30% compensation for depression, although her claim for PTSD was denied. After re-filing, her claim was readjudicated to 70% with Individual Unemployability.

“This process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones. It should not be this way,” she testified.

Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), who chaired the hearing, also said he thought reform was needed to help victims receive benefits.

“If the VA were a private company, you wouldn’t be in business very long, because you wouldn’t have very many happy customers,” he told VA officials at the hearing.

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