Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said today that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has agreed to change the way they handle claims from veterans who have been the victims of sexual assault.
"I've heard the same story from far too many veterans," Pingree said. "They were sexually assaulted while serving but when they tried to get disability benefits it was too hard to prove the attack had occurred. Sometimes victims don't report the incident because they don't feel safe and sometimes they do report and the whole thing just gets swept under the rug. But that shouldn't be a reason for their benefits to be denied."
Pingree met with Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Allison Hickey last month and asked that the VA make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits related to a sexual assault without having to produce documentation proving the attack occurred. Hickey agreed and immediately ordered all VA offices around the country to ease the standards of proof for veterans applying for service-connected disability from a sexual assault.
In her memo to VA employees, Hickey wrote "employees should not expect to see evidence in most military sexual assault cases."
General Hickey also told VA employees to accept veterans' statements on how they were affected by a sexual assault.
Hickey wrote that statements of behaviorial change "should be accepted as credible evidence to satisfy the requirements of the exam Remember, there is a low exam threshold for MST claims, and we should err on the side of the Veteran."
"General Hickey has served decades in the Air Force," Pingree said. "She understands the problem and acted quickly to improve VA practices for these victims."
Pingree says veterans who are victims of sexual assault and have been denied disability benefits should consider reapplying. She says veterans wanting assistance with the process should contact her office in Portland at 774-5019.
Pingree has met with victims of military sexual assault in Maine and in Washington and has introduced legislation to make it easier for them to get disability benefits related to their attacks.