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New VA head inherits sex assault crisis

Two veterans groups want the VA to use the same standards for sexual assault-related disability claims as it does for all others.
Confirmation Hearing Held For Robert McDonald, Nominee To Head Veteran's Affairs Department
Robert McDonald is sworn in prior to testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee July 22, 2014.

Two veterans groups are trying to force the VA to explain why it holds veterans who are survivors of military sexual assault to a different standard than other soldiers when it comes to disability claims.

On Tuesday, shortly before the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald in a 97-0 vote as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Service Women’s Action Network and the Vietnam Veterans of America sued the Department of Veterans Affairs over its refusal to review or change its rules on processing benefits claims for survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

“VA is doing everything it can to deny compensation to veterans impacted by sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and former Marine Corps Captain, said in a statement. “Over several years, we’ve gathered startling evidence that VA has been systematically discriminating against veterans applying for benefits based on Military Sexual Trauma.”

A recent Government Accountability Office report confirmed that dealing with MST is another item Secretary McDonald will have to add to his to-do list. According to the report, rates of approval for MST claims varied between regional offices and between claims processors within those offices. Depending on where a veteran lives, his or her chances of seeing a claim approved could range between 14% and 88%. And a 2011 review of sexual assault-related PTSD claims found “high error rates” in the denials.

"VA is doing everything it can to deny compensation to veterans impacted by sexual assault and sexual harassment."'

The vast majority of sexual assaults that occur while women and men are in the armed services are not reported, and of the ones that are, an even smaller percentage lead to a prosecution or conviction. There were some 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, according to a bi-yearly military survey, but 3,374 were reported and only 300 were prosecuted. VA records found that in 2012, more than 85,000 veterans sought care for injuries or illnesses related to sexual assault, and 4,000 made disability claims.

Many survivors have said they felt discouraged to file reports; without any official record of an assault claim, veterans must provide VA claims processors with other forms of proof, such as statements from family members or fellow service members, medical records, or evidence of mental health problems.

Not accepted as proof? Lay testimony from the veterans themselves, which is allowed for other PTSD claims. For some types of claims, evidence can be difficult to produce. So soldiers with PTSD related to things like repeated IED attacks or heavy fighting in a combat zone can use their own testimony as proof, but a service member raped on base while deployed cannot.

When contacted by msnbc, a public affairs specialist from the Department of Veterans Affairs said she could not yet comment on the latest court filing.

Unlike the VA reforms laid out in the compromise legislation unveiled Monday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, the Department of Veterans Affairs could later their rules without getting approval from Congress, where legislation efforts have met with resistance.

“This lawsuit is an effort to force a regulatory change to come from the agency,” Greg Jacob, Legislative Director of SWAN, told msnbc.

After months of scandal and turmoil over health care and administrative failures, this could be an easy way to restore good will, Jacob told msnbc. “This is a very simple, basic decision that they could make that would affect a few thousand vets but would do an amazing job of restoring the faith and trust that VA has lost.”