Two veterans organizations are suing the Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to force the VA to ease the evidentiary burden veterans must meet to qualify for disability from post-traumatic stress related to military sexual assault.
The Service Women’s Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America filed suit Wednesday against VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, alleging that the VA’s policies are discriminatory against men and women who suffer from PTSD as a result of a sexual assault they suffered while serving in the military.
While veterans seeking disability for combat- or fear-related PTSD do not have to provide evidence linking their illness to military service, veterans seeking disability for PTSD caused by military sexual trauma are required to provide evidence other than their own statements, according to the lawsuit.
“At the heart of this issue, veterans are experiencing betrayal trauma,” from the sexual assault, from the way they are treated by their units after the assault, and then by the VA when they file claims, said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN. “The [VA] is really where hope goes to die.”
A VA spokeswoman said she cannot comment on pending litigation, but said meeting the needs of veterans who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military “is of the highest importance to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“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,” Ndidi Mojay said.
In November, SWAN released a report prepared by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, based on data the organization received as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. That data showed that while 53 percent of PTSD claims not related to sexual assault or harassment were approved in 2008, just 30 percent of sexual trauma-related claims were approved. In 2012, about 73 percent of general PTSD claims were approved, whereas just 57 percent of sexual trauma-related PTSD were approved, according to that report.
The report also showed disparities between different VA regional offices. Some approved a significantly smaller percentage of sexual trauma-related PTSD claims than other PTSD claims, whereas others had very little gap in percentage between the sexual trauma and non-sexual trauma-related PTSD.
For example, in fiscal 2012, the Philadelphia regional office approved nearly 77 percent of other PTSD claims, while OK’ing more than 80 percent of sexual trauma-related PTSD claims. That same year, the Detroit regional office approved more than 76 percent of general PTSD claims, but less than 31 percent of PTSD claims related to sexual trauma.
Greg Jacob, policy director for SWAN, said the regional discrepancy shows the process is broken. But, he said, the VA is resistant to changing the regulations and instead instituted new training for claims specialists and doctors who evaluate patients for sexual trauma-related claims.
Mojay said the VA changed its regulations in 2002 to allow evidence other than a veteran’s service records — such as statements from family members, deterioration in work performance, requests for transfer and other sources — can be used to support claims of sexual trauma-related PTSD. In 2011, the VA developed new training and placed Women Veterans Coordinators at each regional office to assist men and women with sexual trauma-related PTSD claims, she said.
Additionally, the VA announced that veterans who were denied disability for sexual trauma-related PTSD before the 2011 training initiative could ask their regional office to review their claims, Mojay said.
And, Mojay said, VA data shows that in fiscal 2013, the grant rate for sexual trauma-related PTSD is within 6 percentage points of the grant rate for all PTSD claims.