Pingree, Tester, Murkowski Reintroduce Bill to Support Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma
The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act expands the definition of military sexual trauma to ensure servicemembers and veterans who experience online sexual harassment can access VA counseling and benefits
Washington, October 22, 2021
Tags: Military Sexual Trauma
WASHINGTON, D.C.– Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today reintroduced a bipartisan bill to improve access to resources and care for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST).
The Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act, which is adapted from their 2019 version of the bill, updates and expands the definition of MST to ensure servicemembers and veterans who experience online sexual harassment can access VA counseling and benefits. It also codifies the lower burden of proof established in VA policy nearly two decades ago and ensures that this relaxed evidentiary standard is appropriately extended to all mental health conditions resulting from sexual violence.
“For nearly a decade, this ineffective system has wasted precious time and resources at the expense of vulnerable veterans. It is clear that reforming this process cannot be left to the VA alone, and it is time to make the changes necessary to ensure the underlying policies are fair and claims are appropriately adjudicated,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “This is why Congress must pass our bipartisan, bicameral bill which corrects the outdated standard of proof for veterans with a mental health diagnosis other than PTSD, ensures cyber harassment is considered MST, increases access to MST-related health care, and strengthens oversight and accuracy enforcement of the MST claims adjudication process. Anything less would be an injustice to the men and women who suffered while serving our country and carry those wounds for the rest of their lives.”
“As a nation, we have a duty to provide those who experienced sexual assault or harassment during their military service with access to the highest-quality care and services available,” said Congressman Tester, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “Our bipartisan bill will ensure MST survivors who have endured the unimaginable have access to the resources they need to address their trauma—starting with a stronger voice in the claims process and ensuring the best health care options are made available at VA.”
“The heartbreaking truth is sexual assault and misconduct is affecting all corners of our society and occurring in workplaces all over—including in our military,” said Senator Murkowski. “While the DoD continues to focus on alleviating cultural issues that result in sexual trauma, Congress needs to ensure those who suffered have adequate healthcare and support. Through our legislation we are providing important tools for these victims to cope and heal. I’m committed to doing all I can to continue to support our nation’s military.”
Specifically, the Servicemember and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act:
The bill is also cosponsored in the House by Representatives Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), and is endorsed by a dozen veterans, mental health, and anti-sexual violence organizations, including Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, and NAMI Montana.
The full text of the bill can be found 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. In 2012, VBA acknowledged that claims following MST were inaccurately adjudicated and denied at a troublingly high rate and agreed to implement reforms to the MST claims adjudication process, including the creation of specialized MST claims processing teams and specific training for MST claims processors. However, VBA ultimately abandoned those reforms in an effort to address the disability claims backlog.
A 2018 OIG report found that 49 percent of denied MST claims over a six-month period in 2017 had been improperly adjudicated and prematurely denied. In response, Pingree pressed VBA officials to recommit to reforming the MST claims process, and VBA agreed to fully implement the OIG recommendations for corrective action. However, in August 2021, the VA OIG released a follow up report which found that, although VBA took some steps to make improvements to the MST claims process, they failed to adequately monitor implementation and enforce the new policies. Most concerning, the 2021 report found that the percentage of improperly adjudicated claims had actually increased from 49 to 57 percent.
In April, as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veteran Affairs, Pingree asked Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough for his commitment to examine and ease the evidentiary standard for disability claims filed by survivors of MST.