The Infuriating Reason Military Sexual Assault Victims May Have Been Denied Benefits

by Lauren Holter
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While reports of military sexual trauma have been on the rise in recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may have denied benefits to sexual assault victims due to clerical errors, according to a report released by the department's inspector general this week. The agency improperly processed as many as 1,300 sexual trauma claims between April and September 2017 — meaning 49 percent of denials issued during that time may have wrongly kept veterans in need of PTSD benefits from accessing the appropriate care.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) "did not always fulfill its obligation to assist veterans" in proving their claims, the report says. It adds that VBA staff did not follow required procedures for processing those claims, and foregoing the required procedures could have resulted in the denial of benefits to potential victims "who otherwise might have been entitled to receive them."

"VA appreciates the inspector general’s oversight and concurs or concurs in principle with each of the IG’s six recommendations, which the department will begin implementing right away," a VA press secretary tells Bustle. "We know this is an area where the department can improve. That’s why VA has required all of its claims processors to take MST training and pledged to review each and every denied MST-related claim decided between Oct. 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018. If mistakes were made, we will fix them in order to ensure affected Veterans are getting all of the support, benefits and services they have earned."

Service members' reports of sexual assault increased by nearly 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, per a Department of Defense report. The rise in reports was due to more people coming forward rather than an increase in the number of assaults, according to the report.

But women in the military are disproportionately impacted by sexual assault, with 79 percent of the reports filed in 2017 coming from women. Roughly 1 in 4 women said they had experienced military sexual trauma when screened by their VA provider, according to the VA's National Center for PTSD, though its website notes that a "significant" numbers of women and men experience military sexual trauma.

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The inspector general's report highlights systemic problems in the way those claims are currently processed, including a common failure to request medical examinations in many cases that mandated them. Claims should only be denied without first requesting a medical exam if there is no evidence of a stressor, no evidence of a behavioral marker, or no evidence of symptoms of a mental disorder. Yet in 28 percent of the wrongfully denied cases, a medical exam wasn't requested despite sufficient evidence, according to the report.

In 2011, the VA eased the evidence requirements for veterans to prove a PTSD claim related to sexual assault but still looks for "markers" that "provide some indication that the traumatic event happened," per a 2016 VBA report. Those "markers" can include pregnancy tests, records from law enforcement, a doctor, or mental health professional, requests to transfer assignments, and substance abuse, among other things.

Other procedural problems noted in the report include not requesting veterans’ private treatment records, not making the required phone call to the veteran who filed a claim, and deciding claims based on "contradictory or otherwise insufficient medical opinions."

"This report is troubling," Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) tweeted in response to the inspector general's investigation. "Victims of military sexual trauma should not be denied access to the quality care they need."

Walters co-sponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) last year aimed at expanding travel benefits for veterans seeking treatment related to military sexual trauma, though it has not yet moved out of a health subcommittee.

Ultimately, the report calls on the VBA to review all claims of military sexual trauma that were denied since the beginning of 2017 and issue new decisions when appropriate.