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Panel guts bill easing veterans sexual assault claims

Apr. 25, 2013 - 04:56PM   |  
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A House panel Thursday gutted a bill that would have ordered the Veterans Affairs Department to relax evidence requirements for veterans’ claims related to rape and sexual assault.

Instead of telling VA how to handle disability claims when military medical, personnel and law enforcement records may not include information needed to corroborate an in-service incident, the revised version of HR 671 orders VA to “update and improve” regulations for claims related to military sexual trauma, but leaves the details to be determined.

A nonbinding “sense of Congress” statement suggests, but does not legally require, the revised regulations to treat military sexual trauma the same as post-traumatic stress in combat veterans, with accommodation for situations where there is no official record of the problem.

The watered-down legislation could still achieve the same result, according to congressional aides who asked not to be identified, who described the changes as necessary in order to get the bill passed.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance panel passed the bill by voice vote and with no debate.

The measure is aimed at instances where there is no official record of a rape or assault. As originally introduced, the bill required VA to accept a veteran’s word that the incident occurred if a mental health professional diagnoses a condition likely to have been caused or aggravated by military sexual trauma, and if the details of the the alleged incident are consistent with the veteran’s service.

These rules would have applied to disability claims related to post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and other mental disorders liked to sexual trauma. Under current law, a veteran’s statement is accepted in the absence of official records only when there is some corroboration, such as statements from family members or other service members, but also evidence of behavioral changes, such as a request to be reassigned.

Named the Ruth Moore Act for a Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years battling VA over her disability rating for mental health issues after she said she was raped twice during her military service, the bill drew objections from VA because it would have put procedures into law that are now handled by regulation for every other veterans’ disability, and because VA officials think current procedures are satisfactory.

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Even with those objections, lawmakers wanted to pass the measure because of the current political climate, where sexual assault in the ranks has the attention of top military leaders and Congress.

A March 26 report by the Institute of Medicine said sexual assault and rape have “been occurring at high rates throughout U.S. armed forces, including the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.”

While both men and women can be victims, the report says assaults and sexual harassment “disproportionately affect women” who suffer both physical and mental issues and, in many cases, “have a difficult time readjusting.”

According to a 2011 Defense Department survey of troops, 28 percent of women said they had been targets of sexual assault since joining the service while 6 percent of men said they had been victimized after joining.

While exact comparisons cannot be drawn between a similar survey conducted in 2008 because of changes in study methodology, the 2011 figures do indicate an increase in sexual assault among female and male troops since 2008, when 12 percent of women reported experiencing sexual assault since joining while just 2 percent of men said they had been victims.

Staff Writer Patricia Kime contributed to this report.

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