A day after a new report from the Pentagon showed a significant increase incases of sexual assault in the military, a House committee has approved a bill written by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree aimed at making it easier for veterans who survive those assaults to get benefits. The bill received broad bipartisan support from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and will now go to the full House for a vote.
"This is a major step forward in our fight to level the playing field for veterans who were victims of sexual assault and have beenfighting to get the benefits they deserve," Pingree said.
Pingree said a new Pentagon report, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel, highlights the need for her legislation. The Pentagon reported an increase in the number of sexual assaults in the military last year, from 19,000 to 26,000. But just over 3,000 of those assaults were reported to authorities.
"That report is further proof why we need to change the standards for survivors applying for veterans' benefits. So many of those assaults never go reported and under the current system that makes it almost impossible for veterans to successfully apply for the benefits they are owed," Pingree said.
The legislation Pingree originally introduced would make it easier for veterans to qualify for benefits since they only have to show a medicaldiagnosis of a mental health condition and a link between an assault and that mental health condition--similar to standards applied to veterans who file claims for combat-related PTSD.
The amended version of the bill puts pressure on the Veterans Administration to make those same changes, and holds the agency accountable if they don't. Under the bill, the VA would be required to provide a monthly report to every veteran who has filed a claim or been treated at a VA facility explaining when they will make the changeslaid out in the bill.
"We want the VA to make these changes quickly, and every month they don't they're going to have to explain directly to the nation's veterans why they haven't," Pingree said.
(The bill requires that a monthly report be sent to veterans who have submitted claims or sought treatment for any condition, not just related to sexual assault. In addition, the bill requires the VA to report to Congress about the total number of sexual assault claims approved and denied until they make the changes in policy that Pingree is seeking.)
Similar legislation sponsored by Senator Jon Tester is scheduled to be taken up by the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the Senate next week.
Over the last two years, Pingree has become a national leader in fighting for the rights and benefits of MST survivors. She first introduced legislation to reform the MST claims process in March 2011. She reintroduced the legislation as the Ruth Moore Act, named for a Maine veteran who fought for 23 years for disability benefits after her sexual assault, in February of this year. Pingree also appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary about MST, The Invisible War.
A timeline of Pingree's efforts to reform MST policies is online at www.pingree.house.gov/mst.