The top diagnosis of women veterans treated in the VA Connecticut Healthcare System is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it is usually accompanied by other mental health illnesses, according to VA officials. Most women veterans suffer from a mental illness, studies show, and the VA is taking steps to focus more on female-specific mental health care. A national study commissioned by the VA, Barriers to Care for Women Veterans, found that 52 percent of women veterans said they needed mental health care, but only 24 percent sought treatment. A survey by the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) showed that women veterans consider mental health to be their biggest challenge. At Connecticut VA facilities, 1,404 women had at least one mental health visit last year, representing 45 percent of women who use the VA.
Two national veterans’ advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it discriminates against victims of military sexual trauma who are seeking VA disability benefits. The suit was brought by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). They want the VA to change what they consider to be burdensome regulations governing claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that are based on rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment. They cite substantial gaps between benefit approvals for these claims compared to higher approvals for other PTSD claims.
The Yale Law School Veterans Legal Clinic is representing the plaintiffs and filed the suit in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The plaintiffs are asking that the rules conform to those governing PTSD claims based on combat trauma, Prisoner of War status, and fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, which are less stringent than those based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are also situations that pose difficulty in obtaining corroboratory evidence. “The VA knows the current process makes veterans who’ve been harmed by military sexual harassment and assault jump through more hoops than other PTSD claimants,” said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and a former Marine Corps captain.
Veterans’ advocacy groups Thursday accused the Veterans Administration of discriminating against military sexual assault victims seeking benefits for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, saying they receive “significantly’’ more denials than veterans with other types of PTSD claims.
The national figures show “a particularly hostile environment” at the VA for victims of military sexual assault, said Anu Bhagwati, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) executive director, during a teleconference news briefing, calling the experience of seeking VA benefits “unnecessarily grueling, humiliating and exhausting.”
The report found that women filed two-thirds of PTSD claims based on sexual assault, that it’s the most prevalent reason for female veterans’ PTSD claims, and as a result, women are “disparately impacted” by lower approval rates. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut, the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, and SWAN released a report they wrote based on figures they obtained from the VA after settlements in two lawsuits. The data mainly cover the years 2008 through 2012. During those years, the approval rate for women with sexual assault-based claims ranged from 33.7 percent to a high of 59.2 percent. But, the approval rate for women for PTSD benefits from other issues ranged from 46.7 percent to 72.8 percent.