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VA fights bill to ease benefits for sexual trauma victims

Apr. 17, 2013 - 09:37AM   |  
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The Veterans Affairs Department opposes bipartisan legislation that would make it easier for military sexual assault victims to receive trauma-related disability benefits — not because VA officials disagree with the intent, but because they don’t think the legislation is necessary.

The Ruth Moore Act, sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, would relax evidentiary standards for sexual trauma victims who file claims for service-connected mental trauma.

The bill, HR 671, is named for a Navy veteran who fought for 23 years before becoming fully eligible for disability benefits for the post-traumatic stress that she says resulted from being raped twice during her military service.

Appearing April 16 before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance panel, Pingree said her bill is similar to the evidential standards put in place in 2010 for veterans claiming combat-related post-traumatic stress. In that case, she said, VA “finally acknowledged that far too many veterans who have deployed into harm’s way suffered the emotional consequences of their service but could not, through no fault of their own, locate military documentation that verified the traumatic events that triggered their PTSD.”

Under Pingree’s bill, a veteran seeking benefits for trauma related to rape or sexual assault who did not have official evidence of a reported crime “would have to provide a statement that the assault took place, along with a diagnosis from a VA health care professional that links the assault to a mental health condition.”

Major veterans’ groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, support the bill and a similar Senate bill, S 294.

Sexual trauma “is often an unreported crime, or even in the best cases poorly documented,” the American Legion said in a statement. Even when reported, “it is not uncommon for a lackluster investigation to occur and the perpetrator of the crime not to be brought to justice.”

But VA does not think the bill is necessary. “While we appreciate the intent behind this legislation, we would prefer to continue pursuing non-legislative actions to address the special nature” of the sexual trauma claims, said David McLenachen, VA’s director of pension and fiduciary service and the agency’s representative at the hearing.

While veterans who file sexual trauma-related claims are “given a full and fair opportunity to have their claim considered,” McLenachen said VA would like higher thresholds for evidence.

Current policy does not require documentation of an assault or rape; when minimal circumstantial evidence is found, VA schedules a mental health professional to examine the veteran to provide an opinion about whether an in-service rape or assault occurred, he said.

VA also will look at medical service records, veteran treatment records or any private records made available by the veteran to reach a opinion “as to whether it is at least as likely as not that the symptoms or disability are related to the in-service event,” he said.

Pingree said VA isn’t doing enough.

“VA will tell you that their system accepts secondary markers as evidence to verify an assault occurred,” she said. “As comforting as that sounds, we have seen time and time again that VA is vastly inconsistent in applying those standards. What one regional office will accept as proof, another will deny.

“The bottom line is that for too long the burden of proof has been on the veteran, and that needs to change now.”

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