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The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Some lawmakers and veteran advocates are calling for more change to how the Department of Veterans Affairs handles claims of sexual trauma in the military after it was discovered the agency denied benefits to hundreds of veterans without due diligence.

The VA receives about 12,000 claims each year from veterans who say they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to a sexual assault that occurred during their military service. The VA Office of Inspector General reported last week that the VA mishandled 1,300 of those claims during a five-month period last year, meaning veterans who could’ve been eligible for benefits were denied them.

The inspector general asked the VA to audit all the claims it rejected during fiscal year 2017 and correct any mistakes. The VA agreed to finish the audit by September 2019.

However, some lawmakers, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, which represents veterans who filed disability claims, think the VA should do more.

“In our opinion, this is not enough,” 11 House lawmakers wrote Monday.

The lawmakers – led by Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H. – sent two letters Monday, one urging VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to do more to fix the problems and another asking Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. – the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs – to schedule a hearing on the issue.

“In an environment where survivors often refuse to report sexual assaults for fear of retaliation, the VA’s apparent inability to fairly treat these claims risks revictimizing survivors,” they wrote to Wilkie. “You must instill confidence for survivors by immediately working to resolve these issues.”

The House members requested the VA review denied claims going back to 2012. They argued an employee manual for handling military sexual trauma claims has contained errors since that year.

Glenn Bergmann, an attorney and partner at Bergmann & Moore, issued a statement following the IG report, frustrated the VA was asked only to review claims from fiscal 2017. He wants the VA to correct mistakes as far back as 2011. That year, the VA implemented rules that were supposed to ease requirements and afford liberal consideration to claims related to military sexual trauma. Often, evidence is difficult to find for sexual assaults in the military because many of them are not reported, and victims don’t seek immediate medical care, the IG reported.

“Veterans and veteran advocates are outraged that VA will only review one year of claims mishandled by VA,” Bergmann said. “The fair and responsible remedy is for VA to review all of the approximately 40,000 potential PTSD/military sexual trauma claim denials since VA adopted a new policy in 2011.”

The VFW wants the VA to go even further.

The group issued a statement asking the VA review denied claims going back 10 years. The VA should also contact veterans who were rejected benefits, notifying them they can go to the VA for a new decision, the VFW said.

“VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence needs to quickly address this issue in a proactive manner,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “That includes holding employees and their managers accountable as needed and fixing what needs to be fixed so that no veteran is ever denied the care, programs and services they earned and deserve.”

Claims for military sexual trauma used to be handled by VA representatives with specialized training – a practice that ended in 2016. Now, representatives who “do not have the experience or expertise” to process claims for sexual trauma are tasked with doing so, the IG reported.

The inspector general’s office said it asked the VA to audit rejected claims only from fiscal year 2017 because inspectors found more errors were made after that change.

“[The VA] required employees on special operations teams to process [military sexual trauma]-related claims. [This] staff developed subject matter expertise on these highly sensitive claims due to focused training and repetition,” the inspector general’s office explained following its report. “We deemed that there was less risk for errors when [this] specialized staff processed MST-related claims; therefore, we did not make a recommendation to review denials prior to [fiscal year] 2017.”

In its report, the inspector general noted the audit would mean a “significant amount of rework” for VA employees.

In addition to asking the VA to review more years of rejected claims, the 11 House lawmakers Monday added numerous other steps that they thought Wilkie should take, including holding a national summit about how to handle claims of military sexual trauma.

To Roe, the group of lawmakers wrote the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs should quickly follow up on the report with a hearing.

“We are writing you to ask for a full committee hearing as soon as possible to follow up on this report,” they wrote. “We want to ensure that it is clear the needs of [military sexual trauma] survivors are a priority at VA and ensure key items are addressed. Getting this right for MST survivors is crucial.”

Tiffany Haverly, Roe’s communications director, said the committee would request a briefing on the issue from Paul Lawrence, the VA undersecretary of benefits. After that briefing, Roe would decide what to do next, she said. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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