As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veteran Affairs, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) today asked President Biden’s new Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough for his commitment to examine and ease the evidentiary standard for disability claims filed by survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).
“Military sexual trauma has long been a priority for me because so many veterans have approached me or my staff, desperate for help. Their stories are agonizing because their pain is real, traumatized by the abuse, and then again by a system that failed them. Currently, there is a more relaxed evidentiary standard for veterans with a PTSD diagnosis than there is for veterans with a different mental health diagnosis as a result of their sexual trauma. Mr. Secretary, in addition to improvements to healthcare services, will you commit to working with me to prioritize much-needed improvements to the VBA process for MST survivors as well?” Congresswoman Pingree asked of Secretary McDonough who pledged to prioritize the needs of MST survivors.
Video of Pingree’s questions and Secretary McDonough’s response is available for download here.
For more than a decade, Pingree has been fighting for survivors of military sexual trauma to receive the benefits they are owed – both through legislative reforms and with casework completed by her office. She led efforts to reform Question 21 on the Security Clearance Questionnaire to better accommodate survivors of military sexual trauma, and plans to reintroduce The Service Member and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act this session. In the Fiscal Year 2020 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill, Pingree prioritized preventing and addressing military sexual trauma. Provisions she fought for included:
Proper adjudication of military sexual trauma claims, including an investigation into discrepancies in VBA's process for reevaluating previously denied claims.
Inclusion of input from male MST survivors
Support of VA's relaxed evidentiary standard for those suffering from mental health disorders as a result of MST
A report on the VA's work to promote a harassment-free healthcare environment for staff, veterans, and visitors to VA health facilities
A requirement for the VA to release a plan on expanding access to military sexual trauma-related care at all VA health facilities
Funding for peer support programs for women veterans
Additionally, Pingree successfully secured the following provisions in H.R. 7105, the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvements Act, which unanimously passed the House last year and became law on January 5, 2021:
A requirement for the VA to establish specialized teams to process claims for compensation for a covered mental health condition based on military sexual trauma experienced by a veteran during military service, who are to be trained to identify markers indicating military sexual trauma.
A requirement for annual reports by the VA on MST claims submitted during the previous fiscal year to identify and track the consistency of decisions across 14 regional offices of the VA.