Veterans suffering the effects of military sexual trauma face uneven odds of getting approved for care when applying for benefits through the Veterans Affairs system, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday.
While the VA has made progress on its approval rates for military sexual trauma claims in recent years, up to 50% in 2013 from 28% in 2010, the GAO report noted that approval rates vary wildly among regional offices. About half of the VA’s offices had approval rates between 40% and 60%, which was close to average, but the remaining half ranged from as low as 14% to as high as 88%.
The GAO report recommended that the Veterans Benefit Authority and Veterans Health Authority increase and improve training for those responsible for dealing with sexual assault-related claims. It also called for more proactive efforts to change the VA system from within; most changes, the report said, “largely have been taken in response to external requests.
Two veterans groups, Service Women’s Action Network and the Vietnam Veterans of America, filed a lawsuit in April to change the way the VA decides military sexual trauma-related disability claims.
While the report noted that a high denial rate does not necessarily mean an office is doing inadequate work, the report said “the extent of the variation raises the question of whether the data reflect real differences in evidence or differences in how the requirements are interpreted and applied.”
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill aimed at fixing some of the systemic failures that have plagued the VA. Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned from his post on May 30, after a VA inspector general’s report found that widespread problems with VA scheduling procedures have hurt veterans’ health care.
A 2013 Pentagon report found that an estimated 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact took place in one year, but that just over 3,300 were reported. This year’s report on sexual assault in the military saw a 50% increase in reports.
Even as reports increase, receiving care for military sexual trauma through the VA system can be difficult. A survivor must be able to prove that the injuries are a result of something that happened while in the military. Sexual assault is greatly underreported – in both the military and civilian world – and without a paper trail to document injuries and resulting medical problems, the burden of proof is left to the survivor.
The VA changed its policies in 2002 to allow veterans to support their claims with testimony from friends and family and evidence of behavioral changes, among others. But even with the broader criteria, the authorities responsible for approving claims have not been consistent throughout the system. A 2011 review found “high error rates” for sexual assault-related PTSD. In 2013, the VA invited veterans whose claims may have been incorrectly denied to resubmit them.
As the GAO report stated, the VA publicized this opportunity by sending letters to veterans whose claims had been denied but did little follow up. Of the 600 who reapplied, only 150 were approved.