The Other VA Scandal

Dear Friends,

Scandal at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) has reached horrendous proportions and we need your help now to end discrimination against survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Earlier this week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report confirming what we’ve been saying for years – that the VA continues to struggle in adjudicating Military Sexual Trauma (MST) claims accurately and fairly. Here’s what the GAO confirmed:

VHA examiners are incompetent – The report indicated that examiners have different notions of medical thresholds required to provide a positive opinion of MST incident and that some spend only five to 15 minutes examining compensation and pension claim while others spend one to two hours. Claims officials even admitted they were confused about how to apply the regulations. This is sad and embarrassing.

VBA claims officers are confused – The GAO found a lack of consistency in individual claims processing by claims officers and huge disparities in the approval rates around the country due to massive confusion and misunderstanding regarding what constitutes acceptable evidence for proving an in-service sexual assault. One claims official stated that two different claims officers could come to two differing decisions about what evidence to accept and according to current VA policies both would be right!

The training doesn’t work and VA doesn’t know why – It’s no surprise that the examiners are confused about how to apply the regulations. Training for VHA examiners on MST claims consisted of a mere two slides of a 52-page PowerPoint presentation. What’s more is that the report found the VA has no mode or metric to measure effectiveness of training given to VBA claims officers.

VA has no idea why claims are denied – The GAO found that data about claims decisions is not captured and VA does not track reasons for denials, numbers of denials, or track VHA data medical evaluation returns. How can VA claim to have fixed their broken claims system if they don’t even track how they are processing claims? Do they even care?

The VA doesn’t really want to help – After a great deal of pressure from advocates and Congress, the VA admitted they were not processing claims correctly and offered to re-adjudicate previously denied MST claims. The GAO found that in doing so, VA failed to make even a minimum effort to inform the veterans community of the opportunity to resubmit claims. VA put no information on their website, they issued no press release, and they sent no notifications to regional offices. They didn’t even hang up a single flyer at VA healthcare facilities. GAO found that only 1 in 10 VA representatives had even heard about the re-adjudication program. And in a move that infuriated SWAN, VA made the arbitrary decision not to re-examine any MST claims that were filed prior to 2010. GAO reports that of the 29,000 veterans who filed MST claims between 2008 and 2013, only 2,667 veterans received snail-mail letters notifying them of the chance to have their claim reviewed. And of those VA only reversed the denials for 150 veterans. Help us get the VA to stop re-traumatizing our veterans.

While the GAO report makes some recommendations on how the VA can improve, it stops short of recommending policy changes for VA which can ensure MST survivors get the benefits they deserve. Where the GAO stops, SWAN pushes forward. We have been demanding that VA change their regulations concerning MST claims since 2009, and we will continue to do so!

SWAN had a chance this week to discuss this report with the Leadership of the House of Representatives. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held a roundtable on veterans issues with other Veteran Service Organizations and members of Congress on Capitol Hill. Leader Pelosi emphasized that Congress and VA need to be thinking in a positive way about health care and VA needs to figure out how to care for veterans better and faster. SWAN urged that while the focus now is on improving delays in veterans receiving care and building VA capacity, new legislation must also address the deficiencies in the MST claims process.

The good news is we don’t have to wait for Congress. VA’s new acting secretary has the power to fix this second scandal today without legislation. And dozens of members of Congress agree that VA must act now. Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Chellie Pingree have drafted a letter to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson demanding the VA change the regulation for MST claims so that the decision to approve a survivor’s claim is based on medical evidence and not the confused interpretation of a VA official. This is not only an issue of access, it is one of fairness and justice – Tens of thousands of MST survivors suffer from conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, yet the current VA process unfairly denies them benefits. Veterans deserve better.

Here’s what you can do to help. SWAN needs as many Congressional representatives as possible to sign the DeLauro/Pingree VA MST letter. The more members of Congress who demand this reform the better. You can help by asking your Representative to be a part of fixing the broken veterans affairs MST claims process today and ask them to sign the letter too! Tell them that the reforms we are asking for have enormous support from the VSO community.

Enter in your zip code here to find your Representative or look them up in the House of Representatives directory.

As always, your donations will help us transform the VA so that all veterans can receive the benefits they deserve.

With many thanks for your support, and with great hope for the future,

Your team at SWAN.