DAV Takes on MST Claims and Compensation Process
By Ashleigh Bryant
Dr. Bethesaida Tafari-Habte, primary clinician for Well Women Clinic, talks about some of the programs at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, W. Va., aimed at improving health care for female veterans who experienced sexual trauma in the military.
The numbers speak volumes. In 2011, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault filed by military members, though the Defense Department estimates the number of actual incidents to be closer to 19,000. The shame, embarrassment and fear hinder many victims from ever reporting military sexual trauma (MST). And it does not help that, according to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), two out of every three disability claims of MST-related post-traumatic stress disorder are denied for veterans. As official documentation of assaults rarely exists for unreported incidents, many claimants are told they simply have too little evidence for their claims to be approved. A number of MST victims have described this as a cycle of “re-traumatization.” First they are sexually assaulted and face the stigma, humiliation and potential retaliation for reporting the incident, and then they face an uphill battle to get the appropriate care and benefits for their injuries through the disability claims process.
Deputy National Legislative Director Joy Ilem testified before a House subcommittee that Veterans Benefits Administration rating specialists have the final say in deeming an MST-stressor as service-connected, but they may not be digging deep enough into the available information. Especially for unreported cases of sexual trauma, raters may not be following all available guidelines to uncover potential supporting evidence linking MST stressors (such as depression, anxiety, PTSD or substance-abuse) to the assault.
“VA adjudicators should be asking veterans detailed questions or considering stressor statements provided by veterans to determine if other reports could have documented these events,” said Ilem. “This can include calls or visits to rape crisis centers or mental health counseling centers, requests for pregnancy tests or tests for sexually transmitted diseases, statements in personal diaries or letters to clergy or family members following personal assaults.”
DAV called for a review of VBA procedures to ensure systemwide compliance with the guidance set forth in December 2011 for VA rating specialists handling MST claims, which further expands requirements for raters examining personal trauma based on MST.
“We appreciate the changes made by the VBA, but we still have concern over the number of claims which may have been denied prior to the amendments,” said Ilem.
In March 2011, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced legislation that would make it easier for veterans who suffered MST during their service to get the disability benefits and medical coverage they deserve. H.R. 930 relaxes the requirements for proving an instance of rape or sexual assault in the absence of an official record, as an estimated 87 percent of MST cases go unreported. The bill directs the VA to accept a mental health professional’s diagnosis of PTSD, along with written determination of its connection to military service and written testimony from the veteran, as acceptable proof of service connection in lieu of an official report.
At the hearing SWAN, a non-profit based in New York, cited VA statistics showing only 32 percent of PTSD claims related to MST were accepted during 2008, 2009 and 2010, as compared to the 54 percent of PTSD claims accepted overall. The numbers also indicate women are more likely than men to be granted compensation for those claims, even though they are generally awarded lower disability ratings (from 10-30 percent) than male veterans (who average 70-100 percent).
“In 2010, the VA finally adjusted its compensation policy for combat veterans suffering from PTSD, but denied justice to tens of thousands of MST survivors by not doing the same for them,” said SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and MST survivor. H.R. 930, she said, would “create a single standard for applicants and acknowledge that the wounds of MST survivors are as legitimate as those of combat survivors.”
DAV, alongside several other veterans service organizations, has lent support to the legislation in hopes of establishing unbiased and standard reform.
“Establishing service-connection for a condition related to MST is critical for a number of reasons,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “That service connection gives affected veterans better access to the VA health care they need. And for many MST survivors, that service-connection for mental and physical injuries caused by MST represents personal validation as well as recognition of and gratitude for their honorable service.”