WASHINGTON – August 21, 2018 – According to a recent investigation by a VA Inspector General, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied hundreds of military sexual trauma (MST) claims improperly. The result of mishandling these claims could have affected thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leaving them without disability benefits.
In 2017, the investigation discovered that the agency had mishandled as many as 1,300 service related military sexual trauma claims. An estimated 12,000 veterans file for military sexual trauma-related PTSD benefits every year.
The lack of focus on these claims at the VA coincided with a massive backlog in veterans benefits claims that caused an outcry nationally over the agency’s ineffectiveness. The backlog, which reached as many as 600,000 claims in 2013, had been reduced to about 80,000 by the end of 2017.
The findings in the VA Inspector General’s report stated that:
∗ The VA failed to order required medical exams in over half the cases.
∗ The records necessary to substantiate the claims in hundreds of cases were not obtained or the claims were just denied outright, despite evidence to the contrary.
∗ The agency was negligent in not providing the training to employees, so the veteran’s claims could be vetted properly.
∗ The report also found that the VA ceased performing quality audits of the military sexual trauma (MST) claims processed in 2015.
∗ In 2016, the VA diverted the claims into a national queue, where they were processed by staff members who had no specialized knowledge of how to process the claims.
Interestingly, claims related to traumatic brain injury or claims from prisoners of war have a specialized process within the VA.
Recommendations by the VA Inspector General were that the agency should review denied claims, mandate specialized vetting and audits, and make better training available for all claims processors.
Paul Lawrence, the VA’s top benefits official, said the agency will comply with the recommendations, in response to the findings.
Back in 2011, special rules were put in place at the VA for the purpose of vetting claims from victims of sexual assault during military service. Guidelines for the types of evidence needed to support the claims was eased, which required the claim’s processors to take extra steps, including obtaining the veteran’s complete personnel file and reviewing it for telltale signs of an assault, such as deteriorating performance.
The investigation also found that the VA had not updated training materials for claim’s processors since 2014 and that the materials were outdated, incomplete and inaccurate.
“Furthermore, the training was one-time only and there was no requirement for annual refresher training,” investigators concluded.
VA staff told investigators that in 2015 they stopped performing audits of processed military sexual trauma (MST) claims and “reallocated resources towards other areas” because the error rates had declined.