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Report: Benefits claims related to sexual assault treated unevenly

Veterans Affairs benefits workers are still wildly inconsistent in their handling of claims related to military sexual assault despite years of emphasis on the issues, a new Government Accountability Office report has found.

Outside advocates say the findings come as little surprise to thousands of frustrated victims seeking help from the department, many of whom have complained about the benefits process for years.

“They keep laying new changes on top, but they aren’t changing the fundamental problems with the system,” said Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network.

GAO investigators reported that recent regulatory changes and enhanced training have improved VA claims adjusters’ work on cases related to military sexual trauma, but found wide variation in how often claims were accepted. One regional office approved 88 percent of such claims, while another approved 14 percent.

“High denial rates or high approval rates do not necessarily equate to inappropriate denials or approvals,” the report states. “However, the extent of the variation raises the question of whether the data reflect real differences in evidence or differences in how the requirements are interpreted and applied.”

According to 2012 VA statistics, one in five female veterans and one in 100 male veterans reported some type of sexual abuse while in the military. From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2013, veterans filed more than 29,000 claims for disabilities related to military sexual trauma, with most attributing post-traumatic stress disorder to the abuse.

Under VA rules, military sexual trauma by itself is not grounds for a disability claim. But veterans can receive compensation for “physical or mental health disabilities caused or aggravated” by sex assaults.

But the GAO report found that adjudicators “sometimes differ in how they interpret MST-related requirements and make approval decisions.” Evidentiary rules and documentation requirements remain confusing, both for veterans and for VA employees.

Jacob said the handling of cases has been a point of contention for years, with his group noting higher rates of denial for PTSD claims for people with sexual abuse backgrounds than for those with other triggers.

As part of their report, GAO officials recommend that VA expand training for adjudicators, perform more comprehensive reviews of sexual trauma cases to identify problem areas, and increase outreach efforts to veterans previously denied claims related to military sexual trauma.

In response to the report, VA officials agreed with the recommendations and said they are already working on new refresher training for military sexual trauma-related claims. Those courses should be available to VA employees by August.

They also noted that the overall acceptance rate of PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma has almost doubled over five years, from 28 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2013, which they said shows that recent initiatives to address the problem are working.

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