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Veterans Benefits Information

Chairman Murray and Senator Tester Call on VA to Provide Answers about Military Sexual Trauma Data

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(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray and Committee Member U.S. Senator Jon Tester sent a joint letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey about the critical need to clarify VA’s disability claims process related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

“Far too many servicemembers, both men and women, are returning home from service carrying the devastating wounds that result from MST,” the Senators wrote. “After sacrificing so much to serve their county, they often face tremendous challenges in obtaining the services and benefits they desperately need.  That is why we urge you to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.”

Chairman Murray and Senator Tester’s letter requests explicit guarantees that concerns about the ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST are immediately addressed by Veterans Benefits Administration.

The full text of the Senators’ letter is below:

The Honorable Allison A. Hickey
Under Secretary for Benefits
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Under Secretary Hickey: 

We are writing to commend your recent efforts to improve the recognition of disabilities related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  These efforts are long overdue and more work remains to be done.  Far too many servicemembers, both men and women, are returning home from service carrying the devastating wounds that result from MST.  After sacrificing so much to serve their country, they often face tremendous challenges in obtaining the services and benefits they desperately need.  That is why we urge you to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.      

A December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, found that VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data.  As a result, there is no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated.  We understand that you recently directed a review of MST-related claims and request that you provide us with the results of this review and the actions taken in response to the review findings.  There are also additional steps you can take to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.  These actions include ensuring that regulations and policies concerning MST are based upon sound medical research and are providing VBA decision makers with the training and supervision needed to correctly adjudicate these claims.

In 2002, VA implemented universal MST screening after research found that medical and mental health conditions associated with MST were unreported and thus untreated.  VA’s own research, The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma, (December 2007), found that 22 percent of screened female veterans and one percent of screened male veterans reported MST.  This research found that the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis, including but not limited to PTSD, more than doubled for veterans exposed to MST.  This underscores the need for VBA to properly recognize mental and physical health conditions associated with MST.

Additionally, we have concerns regarding the evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault such as MST.  Under the current standard, evidence such as records from law enforcement authorities or rape crisis centers may be used to corroborate the veteran’s account of the stressor incident.  However, research shows that MST is severely underreported in both military and civilian settings.  As a result, the evidence described in the regulation may not exist. 

Although the current regulation allows medical or mental health professionals to consider evidence, such as behavioral changes, and to provide an opinion as to whether the evidence indicates that a personal assault occurred, claims processors may not correctly interpret evidence used by a medical professional in the context of a particular case.  A clinician skilled in diagnosing and treating disabilities associated with MST should make determinations as to whether the post-MST behavior change is consistent with the reported MST experience.  We request that you consider our concerns as you explore potential regulatory changes that may be necessary to resolve the issues surrounding the reported improper adjudication of PTSD claims based on MST.              

We are also aware of the steps you have taken to require training concerning MST, and are pleased that you are focused on improving VBA’s ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST.  While much attention has been given to PTSD claims, we urge you to provide training on other mental health and medical conditions that may result from MST. 

Thank you for your attention to this request.  We look forward to continuing to work with you on behalf of our nation’s veterans. 

Sincerely,


Patty Murray                                                                                                    
Chairman


Jon Tester
U.S. Senator

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Vets Reveal Creative Talents in Fayetteville, Ark.

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More than 100 talented Veterans from across the Nation will attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., Oct. 17 - 23, showcasing their winning entries in art, music, dance, drama and creative writing.

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IDVA to host ‘Helping Our Hometown Heroes’ Veterans benefits fair October 19th at NEIU in Chicago

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CHICAGO – The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA) is hosting a free Helping Our Hometown Heroes benefits fair for veterans on Wednesday, October 19th at Northeastern Illinois University’s Alumni Hall at 5500 N. St. Louis Avenue in Chicago, Ill. The fair will bring federal, state and local agencies and organizations together in one location.

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Five Point Snacks Takes a Stand

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Two advertising executives are marketing a line of snacks honoring the military, and a portion of the proceeds will go to help American veterans.

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Miami VAMC criticized by House committee

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Citing continued "failures in leadership", the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and his colleagues have unleashed a new series of criticisms - aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs in general and its Miami VA Medical Center in particular.

In an Oct. 12 committee hearing, "Failures at Miami VAMC: Window to a National Problem", Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and fellow representatives blamed VA leadership for past and present problems uncovered at the VA facility.

"Some of the issues ... are not new to this committee," said Miller in his opening statement. "The facility came into the spotlight in 2009 when it was discovered and reported that endoscopes were not reprocessed correctly, placing over 2,000 veterans at risk of exposure to disease. Nearly two years later, after the initial round of notifications, 12 additional veterans were identified as being at risk of exposure."

In citing this and a host of other errors at the Miami VAMC, Miller identified what he believes to be the root cause of the problems. "At the heart of this issue is leadership at VA at all levels and in all parts of the country," he said. "It is my belief that the failures in leadership and patient safety that were brought to light in 2009 are still occurring to this day. Multiple investigations have taken place, disciplinary recommendations put forth, new processes and procedures developed, new policies established, yet the problems are not fixed."

Miller opened the hearing to questions from other committee members. Appearing on behalf of the VA were William Schoenhard, deputy under secretary of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), who was accompanied by Mary Berrocal, director of the Miami facility, and her supervisor, Nevin Weaver.

Shaun Rieley, who serves as assistant director of the Legion's Legislative Division and attended the hearing, said committee members peppered the witness panel with three hours of tough questions covering the sanitation problems, a lack of proper record-keeping that led to delays in notifying patients who had been placed at risk by contaminated medical equipment, budget issues - relating to a nearly $30-million deficit identified by the committee's ranking member, Rep. Bob Filner of California - a general lack of accountability and oversight, and statistical evidence contradicting the claims of improvement at the facility.

Other more specific incidents brought to light in the hearing included the case of Catawba Howard, an Air Force and Army veteran who was released from the Miami VAMC within hours of being admitted with mental-health problems, for which she had been committed to another area facility. Howard had reportedly told family members that she sought to commit "suicide by cop." After her release from the VA hospital, she was shot to death after killing a police officer.

Another accusation of administrative laxity concerned the case of a Miami VAMC employee arrested recently and charged with selling the names and personal information of 18 patients at the center, while possibly compromising the confidential records of as many as 3,000 veterans. Yet, according to committee members, none of the possibly affected veterans have been notified of the incident.

Throughout the session, Schoenhard defended the facility, contending that the Miami VAMC has made steady improvement in its operations and administration. "VA has ... a culture of continuous improvement," he said, "which is manifested in every one of the more than 1,400 sites of care in the VA health-care system. This is especially true of the Miami VAMC."

Miller concluded the hearing with a promise that the committee will continue its scrutiny of the Miami VAMC and conduct follow-up research on its operations.


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Did you know?

Military Funeral Honors ceremonies must be scheduled in advance.

The law requires that every eligible veteran receive a military funeral honors ceremony, which includes the folding and presentation of the United States flag and the playing of “taps,” upon the family’s request. This Department of Defense program calls for the funeral director to request military funeral honors on behalf of the veteran’s family.