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Groups sue VA over rules on PTSD claims for sexual trauma

Jul. 30, 2014 - 02:19PM   |  
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Two advocacy groups are suing the Veterans Affairs Department for what they say are the department’s discriminatory practices regarding compensation claims related to service-connected sexual assault.

Service Women’s Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America filed a second petition in a lawsuit against VA after the department denied a request to change the requirements for veterans to prove their post-traumatic stress was caused by a rape, sexual assault or harassment while on active duty.

While VA offers mental health and medical treatment for any veterans who say they suffered military sexual trauma, it requires them to furnish either evidence of a crime or trauma or demonstrate a marked change in their lives following an assault if they have no proof or paper records of the incident.

SWAN and VVA officials say VA’s regulations for PTSD disability claims filed by sexual assault victims are stricter than rules for other groups, including combat veterans.

“To deny the rulemaking process reeks of arrogance. ... VA should be ashamed of inflicting yet another wound upon this population,” SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati said on Tuesday.

In the past decade, VA has changed its evidence requirements for PTSD related to military sexual trauma. In 2011, it developed training for claims specialists specifically addressing MST-related PTSD claims and now has women veteran coordinators at its 56 regional claims offices.

While VA officials could not comment specifically on the litigation filed by SWAN and VVA, a spokeswoman said addressing the needs of veteran victims of military sexual trauma is “of the highest importance.”

“The department is working very hard to ensure that these claims are adjudicated compassionately and fairly, with sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said.

According to SWAN officials, military sexual trauma-related PTSD claims were approved at a rate 16 percent lower than other PTSD claims from 2009 to 2012.

The Government Accountability Office in June reported that VA approval of claims for military sexual assault were inconsistent, varying by geographic region and claims offices. One regional office approved 88 percent of such claims while another approved just 14 percent.

While the government watchdog noted that high denial or claims approval rates do not necessarily mean VA officials improperly approved or denied claims, the wild variability “raises questions of whether the data reflect real differences in evidence or differences in how the requirements are interpreted and applied.”

According to VA data, the overall acceptance rate of PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma has nearly doubled in the past five years, from 28 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2013.

The case was filed Tuesday on behalf of SWAN and VVA in the U.S. Court of Appeals by Yale Law School Veterans Services Legal Clinic.

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