The Veterans Affairs Department announced Monday it is expanding eligibility for veterans to access mental health treatment at VA hospitals or clinics if they were victims of rape, sexual assault or harassment while serving in the military.
The new rule is aimed mainly at National Guard and reserve members who previously could not get care if their assault occurred during a time other than active service or training.
Under sweeping legislation passed last August to overhaul the VA health system, Congress required the department to provide counseling and care to military personnel, National Guard and Reserve members for military-sexual trauma regardless of whether the crime was committed while the patient was in active or inactive status.
By law, the veterans or personnel do not need a referral for counseling, care or treatment for mental health care related to sexual assault.
"VA simply must be an organization that provides comprehensive care for all veterans dealing with the effects of military sexual trauma," VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a prepared statement. "Our range of services for MST-related experiences are constantly being reexamined to best meet the needs of our veterans."
VA provides physical care and behavioral health treatment for veterans who were sexually assaulted while they were in military service regardless of whether the crime was reported to the Defense Department or elsewhere. The department does not require affected patients to be enrolled in the VA health system to receive treatment, nor do they require veterans to provide documentation or records supporting the assertion that they had been raped, assaulted or harassed.
But veterans who have been traumatized by sexual assault that occurred while they were on active duty are not automatically qualified for disability compensation for mental health conditions related to the trauma.
Advocacy groups sued VA earlier this year to end what they call discriminatory practices regarding compensation claims related to service-connected sexual assault.
VA requires affected veterans to to furnish either evidence of a crime or trauma or demonstrate a marked change in their lives following an assault if they have no proof or paper records of the incident.
In the lawsuit, Service Women's Action Network and Vietnam Veterans of America say the regulations for PTSD disability claims filed by sexual assault victims are stricter than rules for other groups, including combat veterans, who must show only that they served in a war zone and experienced a reaction or a traumatic event that caused their condition.
A Pentagon report released in May said 5,061 reports of sexual assaults were filed in 2013, up from fewer than 3,400 in 2012.
Whether that number reflects an actual increase in sexual assaults is not known, however, because comparatively few attacks are officially reported.
In an anonymous 2012 survey of service members, 26,000 troops said they experienced "unwanted sexual contact" during the previous year.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.