Report: VA Biased Against Sexual Trauma Claims

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is defending itself against a report released today that claims it discriminates against male and female veterans who file claims for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from military sexual assault.

The report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Service Woman's Action Network, ACLU of Connecticut and the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School, claims that vets applying for such claims are much less likely to be awarded compensation than vets filing a PTSD claim for other types of trauma.

Former Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN, said the findings show that the sense of betrayal women experience when sexually assaulted in the military "follow them into civilian life as they struggle to make the case for the disability benefits they deserve to cope with the physical and emotional effects of assault."

The report says claims granted for PTSD related to military sexual trauma were anywhere from 17 to 30 percentage points lower than PTSD claims for other trauma during the years 2008 to 2012.  Also, between 2008 and 2011, a gap of nearly 10 percentage points separated the overall grant rate for all PTSD claims brought by women and those brought by men.

The report also claims men who apply for compensation for PTSD resulting from military sexual trauma "face particularly low grant rates when compared to female" veterans.

The VA, in a statement released Thursday on the heels of the ACLU report, did not dispute the findings but said the department made progress in narrowing the gaps through 2013.

The most current data for fiscal year 2013 shows that disability grant rates for PTSD based on military sexual trauma are within 6 percentage points of the overall grant rates for PTSD claims, the VA said.

The grant rate for male vets claiming PTSD based on military sexual trauma is now within 7 percentage points of the grant rate for female veterans who filed the same type of claim. The gender difference on the grant rate for all PTSD claims was only 2 percentage points in FY 2013, the VA said.

Officials also said the gap began to close after Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey was appointed in mid-2011. The department began an aggressive training program and established specially trained claims processing teams in each regional office to adjudicate claims for military sexual trauma.

VA spokesman Josh Taylor said in an email that Hickey spearheaded VA's efforts to ensure that the claims were adjudicated "compassionately and fairly, with sensitivity to the unique circumstances presented by each individual claim."

Hickey's efforts, he said, "dramatically improved VA's overall sensitivity to [military sexual trauma]-related PTSD claims and have led to higher current grant rates – approaching the grant rates for other PTSD claims."

The VA did not respond to the report's identifying VA regional offices in St. Paul, Minn., St. Louis, Mo., and Detroit, Mich., as the "worst offenders" in rejecting military sexual assault PTSD claims. The VA regional offices in Los Angeles and Nashville were singled out for notable improvements in approving such claims.

The statement released by SWAN and other study participants on Thursday said the findings are based on information acquired through two recently settled Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the VA.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said the organization is still litigating a request from the Defense Department "so that we can continue to shed light on this very serious problem of military sexual trauma."

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