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New House Bill Seeks to Relax Benefit Requirements for Victims of Military Sexual-Assault-Related PTSD

by U.S. Medicine

May 20, 2011

WASHINGTON—In June 2010, legislation was passed making it considerably easier for veterans diagnosed with PTSD to receive service-connected benefits and care from VA. Prior to the law’s passage, veterans were required to show a diagnosis of PTSD, prove that they were in a theater of operations where combat occurred and provide proof that a traumatic event happened during their time in theater.

The law removed the latter requirement so that a veteran need only provide a medical opinion that the claimed stressor is consistent with the circumstances of the veteran’s service. The change removed the burden many veterans faced in having to locate sometimes nonexistent documentation of traumatic events and be forced to confront the event over and over.

Proposed legislation recently introduced in the House would make a similar change regarding victims of military sexual trauma (MST) who now suffer from PTSD. The bill—H.R. 930—would relax the requirements for proving the occurrence of a rape or sexual assault and make it easier for veterans with PTSD stemming from MST to receive benefits and coverage for their medical care.

“It’s very difficult to prove sexual assault within the current system, which makes it just as difficult for veterans who have been victims to qualify for the treatments and benefits they need to recover,” the bill’s author Rep. Chellie Pingree D-ME, said in a statement. “It’s a classic case of adding insult to injury.”

According to DoD, there were 3,158 official reports of sexual assault in the military in 2010. The Pentagon also estimated that only 10% of all military sexual assaults are ever reported.

“We have to face up to the fact that the system of military justice has failed over and over again to protect the victims of rape and sexual assault and failed to punish the perpetrators,” Pingree said. “It’s a system that needs to be fixed, but in the meantime we need to change the rules so veterans who have been victims can get the care and benefits they deserve.”

In April, Pingree, along with 23 other members of Congress, wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, asking the agency to voluntarily ease the rules that the proposed legislation targets.

Studies have shown a strong link between MST and PTSD. VA’s National Center for PTSD examined veterans who received VA services after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Of 125,729 veterans who received VA primary care or mental health services, 15.1% of the women and 0.7% of the men reported military sexual trauma when screened.

Military sexual trauma has been associated with increased odds of a mental disorder diagnosis, including PTSD, other anxiety disorders, depression and substance use disorders.

Another bill making its way through the House and Senate—the Support for Survivors Act (HR 1259, S 658)—is designed to make it easier for military servicemembers who were victims of sexual trauma to seek justice, even years after the incident. The bill requires DoD to ensure life-long storage of all documents connected with reports of sexual assaults and sexual harassment. The legislation would prevent the military from destroying any records relating to sexual assault. Currently, there is no coordinated policy across the service branches.

“Instead of destroying these records, we should be making sure that consistent records are kept across all military branches,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, one of the authors of the proposed legislation. “By simply helping preserve their personal records, we can make sure our veterans have the care they need, while supporting justice for assault victims.”

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