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Lawsuit claims VA discriminates against sexual assault victims

May. 1, 2014 - 08:31PM   |  
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Military sexual assault victims with post-traumatic stress are still being pushed away and discriminated against by the Veterans Affairs Department, according to a new lawsuit filed by victims’ advocates Wednesday.

Officials from the Service Women’s Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America are suing to force changes in department regulations for PTSD-related disability claims, which they argue are more stringent for rape victims than any other military group.

“The VA is where hope goes to die” for sexual assault victims, said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN’s executive director.

Veterans don’t need to prove a service-connected sexual assault to receive mental health treatment at VA clinics, but they do need some evidence of a crime or trauma in their record to be eligible for disability compensation.

Department officials insist they have eased those requirements, recognizing that sexual assaults often go unreported or undocumented. Victims claiming a service-connected assault can show records of deteriorating work performance, counseling appointments, pregnancy tests or other indirect evidence as proof of their condition.

But the lawsuit alleges that claims officials have applied those criteria unevenly, and it still puts more burden on victims than other PTSD claimants. They want the department to simplify the paperwork and award more claims.

SWAN officials said from 2009 to 2012, military sexual trauma-related PTSD claims were approved at a rate 16 percent lower than other PTSD claims. VA officials said for 2013, that difference was less than 6 percent.

VA officials did not directly respond to the lawsuit, but in a statement said the department is “working very hard to ensure that these claims are adjudicated compassionately and fairly, with sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim.”

The advocates have been petitioning the department to make the changes for almost a year but filed the lawsuit after being repeatedly ignored, they said.

They also said they don’t believe the VA’s problem is one of ignorance, pointing to repeated testimony from top department officials about attempts to reach and aid more sexual assault victims.

Instead, they framed the issue as one of bureaucratic stubbornness that continues to victimize both men and women already hurt by their military colleagues.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit through the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.

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