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Pingree leads effort to urge VA to reform claims process for sexual assault claims

Independent evaluation she requested found big differences in how veterans are treated from one office to another

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree led 31 of her House colleagues in asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to make changes in the way they handle disability claims for survivors of military sexual assault (MST). In a letter to Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, Pingree and her colleagues highlighted an independent report Pingree had requested that found the VA is not treating all survivors of MST equally.

"The report confirmed what many in Congress have been saying for too long—VA continues to struggle in adjudicating MST claims correctly. The current regulation for MST claims discriminates against survivors of sexualassault and must be simplified and improved," Pingree and her colleagues wrote.

Since many victims of sexual assault do not report the attack, there is often a lack of documentary evidence to submit for a claim. Pingree and her colleagues pointed out that although the VA allows claims to be submitted with other types of evidence, VA officials aren't always allowing that lower standard of proof.

"In 2002, the VA changed the regulation to allow veterans to submit circumstantial evidence, or “markers” such as reports from law enforcement agencies, mental health counseling centers, statements from family members and evidence of behavioral changes as evidence in support of the assault. However, the regulation does not actually require the VA to accept any of these markers as evidence, and it is entirely up to the VA official(s) adjudicating the claim as to what qualifies as evidence. In 2011, at the urging of Congress and many veteran advocacy organizations, VA began increasing training and awareness about the MST claims process. However, GAO has confirmed that even after 3 years of increased training, there is still much confusion among VA employees on what they aresupposed to accept as evidence in these types of claims," the letter says.

Pingree has introduced the Ruth Moore Act, to make it clear that the VA should consider a medical diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as evidence in MST claims. The bill has passed the House but is awaiting action in the Senate. Meanwhile, Pingree and her colleagues are asking the VA to take the common sense step of making the new standards mandatory.

"We request that you exercise your authority as Acting Secretary and simplify the regulation to mandate compensation and pension examinations in every MST-related claim and to allow a medical examiner’s diagnosis of a mental health condition as sufficient evidence in support of the assault. This common sense reform is the only way to reduce the enormous amount of confusion in the current regulation and guarantee that MST survivors will not continue to be incorrectly denied disability benefits."

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