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House OKs easing VA rules for sex assault disability claims

Jun. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The House passed a bill Tuesday that could make it easier for veterans with mental health conditions related to a sexual assault that occurred during military service to get benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department.

The Ruth Moore Act of 2013, named for a Navy veteran who suffered depression and battled homelessness after she was raped twice by the same supervisor in 1987, recommends that VA update its guidelines for handling disability claims related to sexual assault.

It stipulates that until VA changes the guidelines, the department must adhere to an extensive reporting process, including monthly updates to veterans who have submitted disability claims related to sexual assault.

The ultimate goal is to pressure VA to change the standard of proof so that official records are not required to prove evidence of a sexual assault.

The original bill, proposed by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, did just that. But the version that passed the House by voice vote Tuesday ensures only that VA will review its protocols for handling military sexual trauma, and it applies pressure — through an onerous reporting process — on VA to change them.

“With the Ruth Moore Act, we can change VA’s policy so veterans who survive a sexual assault can at least get the benefits they deserve,” Pingree said after the legislation passed.

“Veterans who have suffered this horrific crime must be completely confident [VA] will provide the care, assistance and support these victims deserve … that is precisely what the Ruth Moore Act aims to ensure,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Under the original proposal, veterans who said they were victims of military-related sexual trauma would have their claim accepted if a mental health professional said their condition is consistent with sexual trauma and their claims are not rebutted by evidence.

A Senate version of the Ruth Moore Act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., requires VA to allow a veteran’s testimony to serve as sufficient proof.

Tester said Wednesday he was pleased the House passed the bill.

“As we fight back against the growing epidemic of sexual assault in the military, we must do everything we can to support the survivors of service-related trauma. The Ruth Moore Act makes it easier for survivors of military sexual assault to get the benefits they need without having to jump through additional hoops,” Tester said in a prepared statement.

VA has said that the bill is unnecessary because its rate of approval of disability claims for military sexual trauma is roughly equal to approval rates of claims for post-traumatic stress for combat — a condition for which VA does not require veterans to provide evidence of a traumatic event.

According to VA data, the department in December approved 59 percent of combat-related PTSD claims and 53 percent of military sexual trauma claims.

In June 2011, VA approved 61 percent of PTSD claims but only 34 percent of sexual trauma claims.

According to VA, it is developing procedures similar to those for post-traumatic stress claims to consider other evidence such as statements from colleagues, records that indicate a noticeable change in behavior or job performance, a transfer to another duty station or statements from friends or family.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is scheduled to review the proposed legislation June 12, according to Tester’s office.

Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this report.

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