Peggy McCarthy, Conn. Health I-Team Writer
Veterans’ advocacy groups Thursday accused the Department of Veterans Affairs of discriminating against military sexual assault victims seeking benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, saying they receive “significantly’’ more denials than veterans with other types of PTSD claims.
The national figures show “a particularly hostile environment” at the VA for victims of military sexual assault, said Anu Bhagwati, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) executive director, during a teleconference news briefing, calling the experience of seeking VA benefits “unnecessarily grueling, humiliating and exhausting.”
The report found that women filed two-thirds of PTSD claims based on sexual assault, that it’s the most prevalent reason for female veterans’ PTSD claims, and as a result, women are “disparately impacted” by lower approval rates.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut, the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, and SWAN released a report they wrote based on figures they obtained from the VA after settlements in two lawsuits. The data mainly covers the years 2008 through 2012.
During those years, the approval rate for women with sexual assault-based claims ranged from 33.7 percent to a high of 59.2 percent. But, the approval rate for women for PTSD benefits from other issues ranged from 46.7 percent to 72.8 percent.
For men who filed PTSD claims based on sexual assault, their approval rates ranged from 22.2 percent to 56.2 percent in the same time period. But, disability benefits awarded for men with PTSD claims for other problems received approvals ranging from 52.5 percent to 74.5 percent.
The VA, in a statement released Thursday after the ACLU report, said that the department has made progress in narrowing the gaps in approval rates.
“Leave it to the VA to figure out how to discriminate simultaneously against both male and female veterans,” said Kathryn Mammel, a Yale law student who is an author of the report.
The report found wide disparities among VA regional offices across the country in their handling of sexual assault-related claims. On average during the five-year span, the VA’s Hartford regional office awarded more benefit approvals based on military sexual assault claims than the national average.
In the Hartford regional office, 140 veterans filed PTSD sexual assault-based claims from 2008 to 2012 with an average of 44.3 percent receiving benefits. This compares to an average of 55.74 percent approvals for other PTSD claims during the same time period.
Nationally, 39.2 percent of all applications for military sexual assault–related disability claims were approved over the five-year period. This compares to an average of 61.76 percent for other PTSD claims.
The report showed overall improvement in 2012 in awarding sexual assault disability benefits nationally. Plaintiffs attributed that to better training of VA employees and pressure on the VA by members of Congress and veterans’ advocacy groups.
The groups are also seeking military sexual assault figures from the Pentagon and are still embroiled in a court case to obtain them, according to Andrew Schneider, executive director of ACLU of Connecticut. The report noted that as of December 2011, the Defense Department has been destroying sexual assault records after five years.
Bhagwati, of SWAN, said that military sexual assault can be “life-threatening” because it can lead to suicide. She said victims face “multiple betrayers from multiple institutions and multiple care providers and no one is supporting them.”
The report concluded that military sexual assault and harassment “threaten the strength, readiness and morale of the military, undermine national security, and have many devastating personal effects on survivors and their families.”
It added that the difficulties getting benefits from the VA is “less well known” and “an unfair fight in which veterans are often unsuccessful.”
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).