Lawmakers demand action, hearing in response to VA improperly denying sexual trauma claims
A bipartisan group of nearly a dozen lawmakers is calling for immediate action and an oversight hearing following a watchdog report that found the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has wrongly denied hundreds of military sexual trauma claims in recent years.
Eleven lawmakers, led by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), signed an open letter calling on the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), to hold a full-committee hearing about the needs of veterans suffering from military sexual trauma, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder associated with surviving sexual assault.
A group of 12 lawmakers also signed onto a letter demanding that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie immediately take steps to ensure survivors' claims are properly reprocessed if they were denied.
“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," the members wrote in the letter to Wilkie. "You must instill confidence for survivors by immediately working to resolve these issues."
The letter calls on Wilkie to review denied sexual military trauma claims, adjust the VA's claims-processing procedure to empower victims, provide additional training for coordinators, among other action items.
The second letter, to Roe, details some of the things that came to light in the watchdog's report.
"We were dismayed to learn that 49 percent of the military sexual trauma related claims in the sample studied by the IG [VA Inspector General] were improperly processed and therefore denied, which means that almost 50 percent of sampled service members brave enough to acknowledge being sexually assaulted while in the military and who followed up with credible claim for compensation, were told erroneously that these efforts are not enough and subsequently will not receive benefits and needed support services," the lawmakers wrote.
The VA in 2017 denied 5,500 of 12,000 military sexual trauma claims, and the IG report, released last week, found that 1,300 of those claims were processed incorrectly.
The number of service members who reported a sexual assault increased 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, with 5,200 members reporting incidents last year, the report found.
Studies have suggested that at least five out of every six sexual assaults go unreported.
"If mistakes were made, we will fix them in order to ensure affected veterans are getting all of the support, benefits and services they have earned," VA press secretary Curt Cashour said in a statement to The Hill following the report's release.
The VA agreed to follow each of the IG's recommendations, which include a review of all denied military sexual trauma claims and revamping training for coordinators.