Amid continued uproar over Veterans’ Affairs failure to provide healthcare to dying veterans, the Government Accountability Office released a report Monday shedding light on another crisis in the VA: Survivors of military sexual assault still face immense obstacles to securing disability benefits for their resulting PTSD or other psychological problems.
Since 2008, over 29,000 veterans have sought disability benefits for problems stemming from their sexual assault in the military. The GAO found the overall approval rate for PTSD resulting from sexual assault is increasing, up from just 28 in 2010 to roughly 50 percent in 2013. But that’s still lower than the 55 percent approval rating for PTSD claims for other factors.
The subjective standards used to verify victims’ sexual assault meant approval ratings varied widely depending on where a veteran submitted their claim. In some offices, as few as 14 percent of claims were approved while others approved 88 percent.
“There’s a lot of rape mythology that’s going on within the agency,” said Greg Jacob, policy director for Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). “The folks have their own preexisting ideas about whether sexual assault is a problem, whether women are making stuff up…a lot of that baggage is brought into the process. It’s completely up to the discretion of the claims adjudicator of [what] actually counts.”
SWAN and Vietnam Veterans of America filed a lawsuit in April, calling for a change in how the VA decides disability claims for military sexual trauma. “MST survivors are not afforded the same legal presumptions as other veterans,” they write in the petition. “Even when evidence is available, VA frequently fails to give it adequate weight. As a result, MST survivors are regularly unable to meet the heavy burden required to secure disability benefits.”
The Department of Defense estimates as many as 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault and harassment in 2012, but that the vast majority of those crimes go unreported. Victims report fearing retaliation, dismissal or further harassment for speaking up.
That leaves little paper trail for veteran victims seeking disability benefits. After a court ruling in 2002, the VA changed its policy to allow vets a wider range of evidence, such as testimony from family or friends, to be used in a disability claim. But that still requires more proof than vets seeking benefits for combat-related PTSD, whose claims can be determined based on little more than their own testimony and details of their service.
Studies estimate as many as one in three rape survivors may develop PTSD in their lifetime, and a 2011 study found as many as half of military sexual assault victims had thought about suicide. Victims are also at higher risk of abusing drugs and alcohol and becoming homeless.
To be approved for disability benefits, a veteran’s claim must first be approved by an adjudicator who’s looking for “markers” of sexual assault. But what counts as a “marker” depends on who you ask. GAO investigators were told “two adjudicators could come to opposite conclusions about whether a piece of evidence qualified as a marker, and both decisions might comply with the VA requirements.”
Only if a claim is approved is it then passed on to a medical examiner. Some veterans reported their screening was as short as 15 minutes, during which a doctor was supposed to determine whether they were sexually assaulted and whether they have debilitating psychological problems as a result. The Veterans Health Administration only requires a single hour certification course for medical examiners screening for PTSD. The required curriculum for military sexual trauma? Two slides in a 54-slide presentation.
The VA recognized in April 2013 that many veterans were being arbitrarily denied based on vague criteria, and sent letters inviting 2,667 veterans to resubmit their claims. Less than 600 resubmitted their application. Of those, only 150 were approved for disability benefits. The GAO notes the VA made almost no effort beyond the letters to publicize that veterans could send in their applications again.
In response to the GAO’s report, the VA notes they’re adding even more training for those that process the claims. But Jacob said that isn’t enough. “You can layer training on top of training,” he said. “[But] if the regulation isn’t specific enough, there’s no way to enforce this.”
Last year, the House passed a bill, known as the Ruth Moore Act, that would make it easier for veteran victims of sexual assault to access disability benefits. The Senate has yet to take action on the bill.
Jacob said the VA needs to make clearer regulations on what qualifies a veteran’s sexual assault claim, and give more weight to their personal testimony. “We don’t need to legislate this, the VA can just do it,” he said of the regulations. “It’s a great opportunity for them to do something that will affect the most vulnerable population, and start to rebuild the trust they’ve lost with the veteran community.”