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VA says it doesn't need new law to help sex assault victims

May. 10, 2013 - 01:44PM   |  
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The Veterans Affairs Departments views as unnecessary a House committee-passed bill to change evidentiary rules for veterans filing disability claims related to sexual assaults.

VA says it is doing fine without it.

Approval of disability claims for military sexual trauma are “roughly on par” with approval rates for claims of post-traumatic stress from combat veterans, said VA press secretary Josh Taylor. VA, he said, has taken “concrete actions” and there is “more to come.”

Statistics provided by Taylor show that in December, VA approved 59 percent of PTSD claims and 53 percent of military sexual trauma claims, a reflection of steady improvement over an 18-month period. In June 2011, VA approved 61 percent of PTSD claims but only 34 percent of sexual trauma claims.

Taylor’s comments come after the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed a revised version of the Ruth Moore Act on May 8, a bill named for a Navy veteran who spent 23 years trying to receive full disability pay for the mental health issues she said were the result of two rapes while she was on active duty.

VA officials opposed the bill, but the measure passed by voice vote and with no opposition after several rewrites that weakened the provisions. It is unlikely VA opposition will prevent the House from passing the bill, which has strong bipartisan support. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee had not yet take up its version of the bill.

As passed by the House committee, the bill leaves details to VA on what evidence would be needed to approve a claim. To make certain regulations are changed, though, the bill creates an onerous reporting process that would take effect if new guidelines for handing claims is not issued within 15 months. However, the goal is to get VA to accept a victim’s statement that mental health problems are the result of rape or sexual assault while in the military in the absence of evidence as long as a mental health exam does not disprove the veteran’s claim.

In a statement to the House veterans’ committee trying to stop the bill from passing, VA officials said they are working on a policy to make decisions “compassionately and fairly” with “sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim.”

When reviewing sexual trauma claims, VA recognizes official reports and records may not be available, so it is developing procedures similar to those for post-traumatic stress claims to consider other evidence. This includes, VA officials said in the statement, reviewing military records “for evidence of the claimed stressor.”

Examples, officials said, would be evidence of behavioral changes, such as sudden requests for transfer to another duty station. Statements from family members and other service members also could support a claim. “If minimal circumstantial evidence of a stressor is obtained, VA will schedule an examination with an appropriate mental health professional and request an opinion as to whether the examination indicates that an in-service stressor occurred,” the statement says.

As an added step, all military sexual trauma claims are being handled by the “most experienced and skilled employees.”

VA officials have promised that denied sexual trauma claims will be reviewed if the veteran wants, but they have not yet announced the process for requesting the review. The statement says the Veterans Benefits Administration, responsible for claims, “is planning to advise veterans of the opportunity to request that VA review.”

“Those veterans who respond will receive reconsideration of their claims based on VA’s heightened sensitivity to military sexual trauma and a more complete awareness of evidence development,” the statement says. ■

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