VA discriminates against sexual trauma victims, advocates say

The Department of Veterans Affairs is approving claims for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from military sexual assault or harassment at rates that are "significantly lower" than those for PTSD from combat and other causes, advocacy groups said Thursday.

The advocates said the lower rates mean women — who are more likely than men to file claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma — are denied compensation for PTSD disproportionately.

But when men do file claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma, they said, they are approved at rates lower than those for women.

"The VA must treat a veteran's disability claim fairly when it is based on sexual violence," said Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "It's inexcusable that the VA discriminates against survivors who have sacrificed so much for our country."

The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement Thursday it "is committed to ensuring that Veterans have access to Military Sexual Trauma-related health care and disability benefits."

The agency said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey has led efforts "to ensure that these claims are adjudicated compassionately and fairly, with sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim."

The VA began tracking PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma — which it defines as sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment during military service — in 2008.

The agency has acknowledged the disparity between approval rates. It reviewed sexual-trauma-related claims and launched what it called an "aggressive training program" in 2011 to help close the gap.

The VA says the reluctance of victims to report sexual trauma — many or most incidents are believed to go unreported — makes it more difficult to prove it as a cause of PTSD than combat or other experiences. In recent years, the agency has expanded the types of evidence of sexual trauma it will consider when reviewing claims for PTSD.

Advocates described those efforts as "important steps," but said they have been insufficient.

In a report released Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Service Women's Action Network and the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School said the VA approved PTSD stemming from combat and other causes at greater rates than for PTSD from military sexual trauma in each of the five years for which numbers are available.

In fiscal year 2012, the advocates reported, the VA approved 73.3 percent of claims for nonsexual-trauma-related PTSD nationwide, but only 56.8 percent of claims for sexual-trauma-related PTSD. The VA said Thursday that the gap has narrowed since then, but did not provide current approval rates.

"Most military sexual trauma claimants are women, so women disproportionately bear the burden of VA hostility to these claims," said Kathryn Mammel, a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. "But men who bring military sexual trauma claims are denied at even higher rates than women.

"Leave it to VA to have figured out how to discriminate simultaneously against both male and female veterans."

At the Baltimore regional office, approval rates for claims for sexual-trauma-related PTSD exceeded the national average during four of the five years studied, the advocates reported. In 2008, the local office's approval rate for claims for sexual-trauma-related PTSD was slightly greater than the rate for claims for non-sexual-assault-related PTSD.

The Baltimore office did not respond to a request for comment.

The advocates said their numbers were based on records released by the VA after they filed suit to get the information.

The VA says it has told veterans whose claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma that they may request a review using the expanded types of evidence. That includes reports from rape crisis centers, pregnancy tests, test for sexually transmitted diseases, statements from family members, roommates and clergy, and indications of behavior change, such as requests for transfer.

The VA also said that veterans who the agency finds need care and counseling to overcome psychological trauma caused by military sexual trauma receive these services at no cost. They do not need to be enrolled in the VA health care system or to file a disability claim before they may receive such services.

Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, called the process through which sexual trauma survivors file claims "unnecessarily grueling, humiliating, painful and exhausting." When a claim is rejected, she said, the veteran suffers "a second betrayal."

Bhagwati said she knows from experience. As an officer in the Marine Corps, she said, she was sexually harassed. When she filed a claim with the VA, she said, "I experienced that rejection.

"Over four years, it took six lawyers and three members of Congress to convince VA that they were wrong," she said.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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