(U.S. Senate) – Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reintroduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation this week to improve military sexual trauma (MST) survivors’ access to benefits and health care, as well as bolster MST claims processing.
The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021 would modify the burden of proof for survivors applying for VA disability benefits, given that many assaults during military service go unreported, so that MST survivors can have equal access to the benefits and care they have earned. The bill would also ensure all former Guard and Reserve members can receive MST-related care and counseling from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“As a nation, we have a duty to provide those who experienced sexual assault or harassment during their military service with access to the highest-quality care and services available,” said Chairman Tester. “Our bipartisan bill will ensure MST survivors who have endured the unimaginable have access to the resources they need to address their trauma—starting with a stronger voice in the claims process and ensuring the best health care options are made available at VA.”
“The heartbreaking truth is sexual assault and misconduct is affecting all corners of our society and occurring in workplaces all over—including in our military,” said Senator Murkowski. “While the DoD continues to focus on alleviating cultural issues that result in sexual trauma, Congress needs to ensure those who suffered have adequate healthcare and support. Through our legislation we are providing important tools for these victims to cope and heal. I’m committed to doing all I can to continue to support our nation’s military.”
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced the bill’s companion in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“For nearly a decade, this ineffective system has wasted precious time and resources at the expense of vulnerable veterans. It is clear that reforming this process cannot be left to the VA alone, and it is time to make the changes necessary to ensure the underlying policies are fair and claims are appropriately adjudicated,” said Congresswoman Pingree. “This is why Congress must pass our bipartisan, bicameral bill which corrects the outdated standard of proof for veterans with a mental health diagnosis other than PTSD, ensures cyber harassment is considered MST, increases access to MST-related health care, and strengthens oversight and accuracy enforcement of the MST claims adjudication process. Anything less would be an injustice to the men and women who suffered while serving our country and carry those wounds for the rest of their lives.”
Longtime advocates for strengthening benefits and care for MST survivors, Tester, Murkowski, and Pingree introduced the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act in 2017 and 2019, building on the Ruth Moore Act from previous Congresses.
Following two reports by the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) earlier this year, Tester announced the lawmakers would be reintroducing the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act in the 117th Congress. This legislation addresses issues uncovered by the OIG, including requiring annual accuracy reviews for MST claims processing, studying Veterans Benefits Administration claims processor training for MST, and requiring specially-trained claims raters for MST-related disability claims.
Numerous Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) nationwide and in Montana have applauded the lawmakers’ continued efforts to improve MST survivors’ care and benefits.
“Survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) have some of the most unique cases in the VA claims system,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “It is critical that we improve the process through which these veterans get the care and benefits they need in ways that adequately address the sensitivity and complexity of the issue at hand. DAV is proud to support the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021, and we appreciate Senators Tester and Murkowski incorporating the voices of MST survivors in the crafting of this important legislation.”
“MOAA’s work with our VSO and Military Coalition partners to improve the climate and culture for those serving in uniform and monitoring VA’s and DoD’s treatment and care of victims has been a high priority for years,” said Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) President and Chief Executive Officer Lieutenant General Dana T. Atkins. “While we are encouraged by Secretary Denis McDonough’s and Secretary Lloyd Austin’s work to eradicate long-standing systemic problems and improve accountability so servicemembers and veterans receive the services and benefits they deserve, we know more work is needed. MOAA strongly supports Senator Tester and Senator Murkowski’s bill, the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021.”
“Sexual assault in the military directly affects the lives of service members once they transition into civilian life,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Deputy Director of National Legislative Services Tammy Bartlet. “The VFW strongly supports the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021, which would require VA to modernize the MST definition to include technological abuse, update the standard of proof for MST disability claims, review MST training quality at VBA, and examine barriers and challenges MST survivors experience with inpatient mental health care services. This bill is a necessary step to ensure veterans’ MST claims are handled respectfully and that veterans receive these essential support services from VA.”
“VVA fully supports Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021,” said Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Women Veterans Committee Chair Kate O'Hare Palmer. “This bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Tester and Murkowski will address the unmet needs of these men and women who are survivors of MST, and most importantly, it will ensure they receive the healthcare and benefits they have earned by virtue of their service to our nation.”
“VA offers an array of benefits and services to veterans who experienced MST, but they often encounter barriers in accessing them,” said Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Heather Ansley. The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act would remove many of these obstacles, allowing a greater number of affected veterans to receive the assistance they need. We appreciate the leadership of Senator Tester and Senator Murkowski in introducing this legislation.”
“VA’s claims process for military sexual trauma (MST) can be an unnecessarily difficult road for a survivor and cause further trauma instead making veterans feel safe and secure as they embark on the harrowing process of filing their claim,” stated IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler. “IAVA is proud to support Chairman Tester and Senator Murkowski’s Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act, which will greatly improve the MST claims process and adjust the standard of proof a veteran has to provide, lessening the potential for re-traumatizing any veteran.”
“More than one in ten of the veterans that Wounded Warrior Project serves are survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), an experience that can have a complex and long-lasting impact on a veteran’s life,” said Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) Chief Program Officer Jennifer Silva. “While VA has come a long way in improving its care and services for MST, the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act recognizes that more can be done to expand access to care, reduce the burden of benefits claims, and improve outcomes for survivors. Wounded Warrior Project is proud to support this legislation. We are grateful for the leadership of Senators Tester and Murkowski in their effort to make meaningful change for MST survivors.”
“The effects of untreated MST can be devastating to the overall health of veterans and in the transition successful transitioning back home into their families and communities,” said AMVETS Executive Director Joseph Chenelly. “Senators Tester and Murkowski’s Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act will require the VA to have specially trained claims raters processing MST-related benefits claims and ensure that more mental health diagnoses related to MST qualify for VA service-connected benefits. MST is a heinous crime which is a disgrace to all of those who have worn the uniform of the Armed Services, and it is our hope that upon passage of this bill the VA will be able to better assist survivors in the many ways that they need it.”
"The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act makes important, urgently-needed changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ disability compensation and claims process for survivors of military sexual trauma, an issue Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) has long advocated for,” said Service Women’s Action Network Chief Executive Officer Deshauna Barber. “It also expands access for military sexual trauma survivors in the veterans’ healthcare system. Military sexual trauma survivors often times feel vulnerable and forgotten; it is our nation's responsibility to support these victims and provide the highest level of care during and after their service to our country. We at Service Women’s Action Network are proud to support this act".
“The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act proposes a number of very succinct solutions to ensure that survivors of military sexual trauma are able to receive the benefits that they often are deprived of and so desperately need,” said Protect our Defenders Director of Programs & Policy Adelaide Kahn. “This Act would bring a much needed update to the existing evaluation system, and may not only result in providing veterans with appropriate benefits and treatment, but may also inspire the myriad military sexual trauma survivors who have thus far suffered in silence. Protect Our Defenders is proud to endorse this legislation."
“It is imperative that the experiences of survivors in the military and every institution are taken seriously and that they receive comprehensive access to support and care,” said Alliance to End Sexual Violence Policy Director Terri Poore. “We're grateful for the leadership of Senator Tester and Senator Murkowski with the introduction of this legislation addressing military sexual trauma.”
“NAMI Montana is grateful for Senators Tester and Murkowski’s Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act to improve the VA's ability to deliver effective inpatient and outpatient care for MST,” said NAMI Montana Executive Director Matt Kuntz. “This is a specific and difficult kind of trauma that needs care designed specifically for the veterans working to recover from it. The VA has worked hard to expand MST care, but it's time to go further for these veterans to get them the care they need and deserve.”
Full text of the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2021 can be found HERE.