WASHINGTON (AP) — The House passed legislation Tuesday designed to make it easier for veterans to obtain financial compensation for injuries or illness linked to sexual abuse while in the military.
About 4,000 veterans last year sought compensation from the federal government for post-traumatic stress disorder and other illness connected to military sexual trauma, showing that the problem of sexual abuse in the military has longstanding repercussions for the victims and for taxpayers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says about half of military sexual trauma-related claims are approved, but lawmakers say the rate should be higher. The House bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, recommends that the department update its guidelines for dealing with disability claims related to sex abuse.
Until it does, the VA must meet extensive reporting requirements, including a monthly report to all veterans who submit a disability claim connected to military sexual abuse or who seek treatment for illnesses or injuries related to sex abuse.
The legislation was passed by voice vote Tuesday and drew bipartisan support from leaders of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The bill does not stipulate exactly how the VA should revamp the claims process when it comes to military sexual trauma claims.
The Senate version lays out a clearer path that many supporters would like to see the VA follow. They want the VA to let the veteran's testimony serve as sufficient proof that an assault occurred. Currently, the VA considers a range of evidence when determining whether an assault or harassment occurred. Under current policy, the proof can include statements from colleagues, friends or family, documentation of a request for transfer, or evidence of a change in job performance.
Pingree said such proof can be hard to come by because so many cases go unreported. The bill is named after Maine resident Ruth Moore, who said she was raped twice while in the Navy and fought for years to get the VA to approve compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries.
"There are thousands and thousands of Ruth Moores out there, who have been fighting for their benefits for years, or even for decades," Pingree said. "As survivors of sexual assault, they have suffered and sacrificed enough. We can make the process of getting the benefits they are owed a little bit simpler."
The VA originally came out against the bill, but has since dropped its opposition. The issue has taken on more urgency in Congress after a recent Pentagon report that estimated the number of cases involving "unwanted sexual contact" jumped to about 26,000 in the latest fiscal year.
Supports of the bill have also called on President Barack Obama to enact the changes they're requesting through an executive order.