Congresswoman Chellie Pingree welcomed the news that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has agreed to her request to reexamine previously denied disability claims from sexual assault survivors, but says the VA is doing a poor of job communicating that policy to veterans.
"It's pretty clear that there are thousands of survivors of sexual assault who should have been getting benefits but had their claims denied," Pingree said. "The VA has admitted they have made mistakes and agreed to take another look at these claims. But they haven't done a very good job of telling veterans they have another shot and I don't think they have even communicated this change effectively to their own staff."
Pingree had been pushing the VA to reopen cases in which victims of sexual trauma have suffered from PTSD and have applied for benefits but had their claims denied. Last summer General Allison Hickey, Undersecretary for Benefits in the VA, said the Department was agreeing to Pingree's request but it wasn't until late this spring that letters started to go out to veterans who have had their claims denied.
"That letter has only gone out to about 2,000 veterans who have had claims denied--that's leaving out a lot of survivors. And you can't even find that letter on the VA's website, so we put it on our website to make sure any veteran who wants to can see it, print it out, and take it to their local VA service center to make sure the staff there is aware of this review process," Pingree said.
Pingree created a page on her website that includes the letter and tips on how veterans can get their claims reviewed. (pingree.house.gov/mstclaims)
"The VA is telling veterans--some veterans--that they can have their claims reconsidered. But they don't give them a number to call. We will do our best to make sure that veterans get the info they need, but the VA has to do a better job too," Pingree said.
The VA is supposed to accept circumstantial evidence for veterans who were victims of sexual assault and suffer from PTSD, but the Department has acknowledged that they haven't always followed that procedure and some claims should be reexamined.
Pingree continues to push for an even more substantial change in VA policy for survivors of sexual assault so that a veteran's testimony along with a diagnosis of PTSD would be enough to prove a claim for benefits. That new policy has been laid out in the Ruth Moore Act, which passed the House this spring and is awaiting action in theSenate.