Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said today that a Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report she had requested shows continued problems in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs treats veterans who were the victims of military sexual assault (MST). The report found that in some VA offices as few as 14% of MST claims for disability benefits were approved while in others the rate was as high as 88%.
"Essentially the report found exactly what we've been saying to the VA for a few years: the rules around disability claims for MST survivors just aren't being followed and that means veterans are still being denied benefits that they deserve," Pingree said. "Whether or not they get their claim approved shouldn't be a roll of the dice for veterans but, at least with MST cases, that seems to be what is happening."
The GAO found that there is a lot of confusion about how claims for disability from sexual assault should be handled, particularly around what kind of evidence should be accepted to prove the veteran's case. In Congress, Pingree 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. Although officials at the VA insist that is already policy, the GAO report found in many cases that type of evidence was not accepted.
"Despite intensive training and the claims by the VA that they are treating survivors of MST fairly, this report found that simply isn't the case," Pingree said. "The message hasn't gotten out to VA offices around the country and veterans arepaying the price by having their claims denied unfairly."
Recently Pingree fought to have the case of Maine Veteran RuthMoore reconsidered and eventually the VA admitted they had wrongly denied her claim in the 1990s, agreeing to pay her over $400,000 in benefits owed to her. At a July 2012 Congressional hearing, VA officials had promised Pingree and Moore that they would allow veterans to have MST claims reopened and reexamined if they think they havebeen wrongly denied. But the GAO report criticized the VA for its limited outreach to veterans about that opportunity.
"The VA told us in a Congressional hearing that they would allow veterans to reopen their MST claims, but it looks like they didn't bother telling veterans," Pingree said. "I'm glad the GAO acknowledged this and hopefully the VA will put some real effort into informing veterans that the they can have their claims reviewed."
Pingree requested the GAO review along with half a dozen of her colleagues in the Senate and House.