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VA rejects PTSD claims linked to military sexual trauma at alarming rate, study finds

PTSD (US Army/Released)
January 22, 2024

A recent study conducted by Yale School of Medicine shines a light on concerning statistics regarding Veteran Affairs (VA) acceptance of PTSD claims issued by veterans. 

Several noted differences in claim acceptance existed. While combat-related PTSD claims resulted in an 18.2% denial rate, PTSD claims related to military sexual trauma (MST) resulted in a 27.6% denial rate.

In addition, racial and gender disparity was noted. Caucasian claimants experienced a 25.3% denial rate, while Black veterans encountered a 32.4% denial rate. Male veterans with PTSD claims related to MST were denied more often than female veterans, with a denial rate of 36.6% compared to 25.4%. 

Aliya Webermann, Ph.D., lead author and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, hopes the study encourages the VA to reassess criteria.

“This is the first empirical study to identify racial and gender disparities in awarding of MST-related PTSD VA benefits, and as compared to combat-related claims,” Webermann said. “While the VA has substantially increased their grant rate for MST-related PTSD benefits, this study shows continued disparities in access to VA benefits and barriers to accessing VA benefits for veterans from underserved backgrounds and/or those who may underreport military sexual trauma.”

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The study is based on 102,409 combat-related claims and 31,803 MST-related claims submitted between October 2017 and May 2022. While the VA doesn’t have a specific disability rating that applies to MST, it does allow PTSD applications from veterans who are filed with MST as a causative factor. 

Improving VA handling of MST claims has been ongoing. In 2002, evidentiary standards were lessened, allowing veterans to submit a claim even if they had difficulty in providing evidence due to loss of paperwork, lack of reporting, or time passage between the events and claims. New guidelines allowed the consideration of statements from those close to the veteran, supporting medical records, treatment for depression, or documented decline in performance during timeframes that correspond with the alleged assault. 

In 2011, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) began providing specialized training to claim adjudicators assigned to evaluate MST cases. 

According to VA News, these measures have achieved a denial rate of MST PTSD claims similar to combat-related PTSD claims. In 2017, 54.6% of combat-related PTSD claims were approved, compared to 53.4% of MST PTSD claims.

Another Yale study found that an estimated 7.6% of military veterans screen positive for MST experiences. Among those affected, a higher rate of psychological symptoms, including an increased risk of suicide, was noted. 

In a further effort to provide aid to veterans and active-duty members who have experienced MST, the Veterans Health Administration staffs an MST coordinator at each VA medical facility. These coordinators are available to assist veterans and active-duty members who have experienced MST with locating and facilitating medical and mental health care.