VA wrongly denied hundreds of sexual trauma claims by veterans, watchdog report finds

VA wrongly denied hundreds of sexual trauma claims by veterans, watchdog report finds
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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wrongly denied hundreds of military sexual trauma claims in recent years, leaving potentially thousands of veterans without benefits, according to a new report from the VA inspector general.

The VA in 2017 denied 5,500 of 12,000 military sexual trauma claims, and Tuesday's report found that 1,300 of those claims were processed incorrectly.

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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, according to the report.

The inspector general found that the VA failed to order medical exams more than half of the time, did not review proper documentation and did not pursue claims even when there was sufficient evidence.

"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.

The report offered several examples of the VA's shortcomings.

"A female veteran submitted an MST [military sexual trauma]-related claim in March 2017 with details of a sexual assault that occurred during her military service," the report states. "An MST coordinator determined there were no markers in the veteran’s file and that the case was ready for a decision without a medical examination."

After listing evidence that the veteran was suffering from behavioral issues, an indication of possible trauma, the staff "should have requested a medical examination," according to the inspector general.

"A clinician might have provided a positive opinion regarding the veteran’s claim, which in turn could have resulted in the approval of the claim," the report said.

The findings were first reported by USA Today.

The inspector general noted the issues are likely due to a combination of inadequate training for coordinators and a lack of an additional level of review for claims. The VA discontinued regular reviews into claims processing accuracy in 2015.

The VA's top benefits official, Paul Lawrence, said the agency will comply with the recommendations, which include a review of all denied military sexual trauma claims, adding another level of review, updating training for coordinators.

"The VA appreciates the inspector general’s oversight and concurs or concurs in principle with each of the IG’s six recommendations, which the department will begin implementing right away," Cashour also said. "We know this is an area where the department can improve."

-Updated 5:15 p.m.