Servicewomen Denied Claims for Military Sexual Trauma (MST): What Happened?

Article by L.L. Nolan, an Asheville-based freelance writer.

Women who serve in the military and experience sexual trauma fight an uphill battle for justice. Fears of retaliation are just the beginning. If the trauma causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the servicewoman must exhibit behavioral “markers” for MST and must provide evidence that the assault occurred. Sometimes, the markers and evidence may be difficult to ascertain. There are very specific guidelines at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) on how to process these often complex, emotional MST-related claims. Unfortunately, the battle for justice may get stymied. On Tuesday, August 21, 2018 the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that in FY2017, “nearly half of denied MST-related claims were not properly processed following VBA policy.”What the heck happened?

The OIG offered up several explanations for these “errors in processing.” In a nutshell, the VBA staff, including Veteran Service Representatives (VSRs) and MST Coordinators, “did not follow the required claims processing procedures.” The results of this ineptitude were failures to request medical exams despite sufficient evidence to do so; VSRs not requesting veteran’s private treatment records; MST Coordinators not calling the veteran or VSRs failing to determine whether veteran reported the traumatic event or to obtain report; and, Rating VSRs (RVSRs) deciding veterans’ claims based on contradictory or insufficient medical opinions.

The emotional and economic costs to servicewomen cannot be emphasized enough. While the OIG’s job isn’t to determine whether VBA staff should have granted the denied claims, it is clear that the VBA failed to perform their duties properly and must be required to reevaluate each denied claim. So what exactly were the failures? The OIG attributes the estimated 49% denial of claims to inadequate training and reviews. Specifically:

  1.  In 2016, the VBA switched the task of processing the often complex MST-related claims from experienced Special Operations Teams to inexperienced VSRs.
  2. No additional level of review exists.
  3. In December 2015, VBA’s quality assurance teams stopped conducting reviews of MST-related claims.
  4. Although adjudication procedures have changed, VBA training on MST-claims has not been updated since 2014.

So what now? As a result of the review, the OIG made six recommendations to the Under Secretary for Benefits. Five were approved. The most important item on the list is the requirement to review all denied MST-related claims since the beginning of FY 2017, take corrective action and render new decisions where appropriate. In addition, the OIG has agreement from the VBA to direct all MST-related claims to a specialized group of claims processors, conduct quality improvement reviews, update training on MST-related claims processing, update the claims “checklist” with specific steps, and require certification of completion. The recommendation to add an additional level of review was replaced with a performance measure. Keep in mind that while all the recommendations are helpful, there still exists a high degree of ambiguity for specifics and timelines. Such is government.

If you have not already been contacted, it is essential that servicewomen with MST-related claims denied from October 1, 2016 through June 20, 2018 contact their VSR, MST Coordinator or the VBA to secure the additional review, corrective action and rendering of a new decision, as appropriate. Let’s not allow the system to fail us again. Keep fighting the good fight.

Your sister-in-arms,

L.L. Nolan

https://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-17-05248-241.pdf

AUTHOR BIO: Lisa Nolan, an Asheville-based freelance writer, has written for businesses and non-profits while globetrotting. She has worked as a professional trainer and coach in federal government, outdoor recreation and the US Army. Her days are mostly spent swimming, hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, and wordsmithing at her stand-up desk.