Late Breaking News
Senators: VA Not Responding Quickly Enough to Sexual Assault Disability Issues
- Categorized in: December 2011, Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), News, PTSD, TBI
WASHINGTON--With more than 3,000 servicemembers reporting military sexual assault (MST) just last year and with potentially nine times that many cases unreported during that time period, according to DoD, a lot of victims require VA mental-health services.
The problem, according to members of Congress, is that VA is not responding quickly enough to concerns about how it handles disability claims stemming from MST. Key complaints include unclear regulations, a lack of consistency throughout the VA system and continued barriers created by the need for documentation of incidents.
The department has been working to ease the regulations involving MST and disability claims. In July, a memo from Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits, went to Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) processors nationwide, noting that processors should not expect to see documented evidence of MST, because there frequently is none. VA would still look for evidence, but veterans’ statements would be taken as evidence, and veterans would be given the benefit of all reasonable doubt.
“The veteran’s service records may be silent concerning any official notification or immediate behavioral changes,” Hickey said in her memo. “Statements of continuity of behavioral changes following service should be accepted as credible evidence to satisfy the requirements of the exam threshold.”
Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) chairwoman of the Senate VA Committee, and Jon Tester (D-MT), however, maintain that current regulations are still too much of a hurdle for veterans and that VA is not moving swiftly enough to address the issue.
In a letter sent to VA leadership last month, Murray and Tester argued that, despite memos that have been sent, the official regulations are unclear, and processing of MST-related claims is not consistent throughout VA.
They cited a December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General report reviewing combat stress in women veterans receiving VA healthcare and benefits. That report found that available MST-related claims data had not been fully assessed. Consequently, VA had no clear understanding of how consistently those claims were being adjudicated.
Another research report — this one conducted by VA itself in 2007 — found that 22% of female veterans and 1% of male veterans screened positive for MST. The same research found the likelihood of mental-health diagnoses, including PTSD, more than doubled for veterans exposed to MST. Murray and Tester used this information to underscore the need for veterans with a history of MST to be properly diagnosed and given the full range of VA benefits.
Burden of Proof
Current regulations allow for VA medical and mental-health professionals to consider evidence such as behavioral changes when providing an opinion as to whether a sexual assault occurred. However, the legislators point out that claims processors may not correctly interpret evidence used by a medical professional.
“A clinician skilled in diagnosing and treating disabilities associated with MST should make determinations as to whether the post-MST behavior change is consistent with the reported MST experience,” Murray and Tester told VA officials in their letter. “[VA should ensure] that regulations and policies concerning MST are based upon sound medical research and are providing VBA decision makers with the training and supervision needed to correctly adjudicate these claims.”
VA has tackled similar regulatory issues in the past with regard to PTSD. Recently, VA dropped the requirement that veterans provide documented evidence of the combat incident that triggered the PTSD, because such documentation is often nonexistent.
According to Murray, VA recently has conducted a review of MST-related claims. She and Tester requested VA provide Congress with the results of the review and the actions the department is taking in response to the review findings.
VA ordered all regional office personnel handling MST claims to complete online training lessons on both MST and MST sensitivity. All personnel dealing with MST claims were expected to undergo that training by September 30. According to VA officials, the agency also is developing additional guidance to reinforce current policies and procedures — specifically VA’s regulation that allows evidence from sources other than a veteran’s service record to corroborate PTSD. This will help ensure that victims of MST who suffer from PTSD will have their claims fairly considered, officials stated.
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