WASHINGTON — Veterans suffering from military sexual trauma were still unfairly denied benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs years after problems first came to light with the agency’s handling of claims, a federal watchdog reported Thursday.

The VA Office of Inspector General investigated denied claims of military sexual trauma and found VA processors didn’t always follow the policies and procedures for them. Leaders of the Veterans Benefits Administration didn’t monitor compliance, and there were ongoing “failures in governance,” the report states.

“As a result, veteran survivors of military sexual trauma remain at risk of not receiving the VA benefits to which they are entitled and experiencing additional distress when claims are improperly handled or denied,” the report reads.

The inspector general’s office investigated the claims as a follow-up to a 2018 review, during which inspectors found about 49% of rejected claims for military sexual trauma between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2017, were denied without the processors performing their due diligence.

Inspectors conducted a second review to see how the department improved since the 2018 report. Instead, they discovered the situation had gotten worse. The office found 57% of rejected claims for military sexual trauma in the last quarter of 2019 were incorrectly denied.

The VA had not corrected the problems found in 2018, the new report found.

In a written response to the report, Thomas Murphy, the VA’s acting under secretary for benefits, said the department has improved its handling of military sexual trauma claims in fiscal 2021. From Oct. 1, 2020, the start of the fiscal year, through June 1, the VA has granted 72% of military sexual trauma claims, Murphy wrote. That’s up from 57% in 2017.

“[The VA] acknowledges that additional controls and oversight are required to further improve [military sexual trauma]-related claims processing,” Murphy wrote. “However, as a result of our efforts since 2018, [the VA] has dramatically increased the grant rate for MST-related claims.”

The inspector general’s office said military sexual trauma claims are especially complex. To receive disability benefits, veterans must have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as credible evidence that sexual assault or harassment occurred during their military service. Veterans also need a medical opinion linking their symptoms to the assault or harassment.

The claims are a challenge for the VA because many sexual assaults are not reported when they happen, the inspector general’s office said.

The office suggested in 2018 that the claims be handled by processors who receive special training. The VA announced in May that it would follow through on that recommendation and designate specialized offices to handle the claims in an effort to reduce the rate of rejection.

At the time, the VA announced the claims would be handled by processors in Lincoln, Neb.; Hartford, Conn.; Columbia, S.C.; New York; and Portland, Ore.

The inspector general’s office directed the VA on Thursday to review all of the claims in which inspectors had found errors and correct them. Some lawmakers spoke out this week, though, arguing more action is needed. Rep. Mark Takano, R-Calif., called on the department to give a second look to all denied military sexual trauma claims.

“I call on VA to re-adjudicate all denied MST claims,” said Takano, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “This the only way to know for sure that more claims are not inaccurately processed.”

The inspector general’s office also issued a report this week based on interviews with 136 of the VA’s military sexual trauma coordinators. More than 60% said they didn’t have the administrative support that they needed to perform their duties, and nearly 30% said they needed more funding for outreach and education.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he planned to introduced legislation in the next few weeks that he promised would “restore veterans’ confidence in the VA system” and provide care to survivors of military sexual trauma.

“The VA needs to aggressively and unequivocally increase accountability, improve claims processing and expand supportive services to better care for MST survivors,” Tester said in a statement.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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