(U.S. Senate) – This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) are teaming up to introduce bipartisan, bicameral legislation to improve military sexual trauma (MST) survivors’ access to care and benefits, as well as bolster MST claims processing.
The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 would expand the evidentiary standard for survivors applying for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure MST survivors are provided equal access to the benefits and care they have earned. Given how many instances of MST go unreported during service, the bill would require VA to consider non-Department of Defense evidence sources when reviewing MST claims and would expand this standard to all mental health conditions related to MST. The bill would also ensure all former Guard and Reserve members can receive MST-related care and counseling from VA.
“Survivors of military sexual assault or harassment deserve the highest-quality care and services possible,” said Chairman Tester. “These veterans have simply endured the unimaginable, and we’ve got to do a better job at delivering the tools to address their trauma. That’s why I’m proud to lead the bipartisan push to give sexual assault survivors a stronger voice in the claims process while expanding access to the VA treatments they need and deserve.”
“Our servicemembers and Veterans who experienced sexual trauma deserve to have access to the healthcare and benefits they’ve earned. Through this bipartisan effort, we’re ensuring survivors have the tools they need to heal,” said Senator Murkowski. “This legislation will not just address the trauma too many of our veterans have had to endure, but also empower survivors who seek quality care and support.”
“Military sexual trauma has long been a priority for me because so many veterans have approached me or my staff, desperate for help. Their stories are agonizing because their pain is real, traumatized by the abuse, and then again by a system that failed them. Reforming the claims process cannot be left to the VA alone, and it is past time the necessary changes are made to ensure the underlying policies are fair and claims are appropriately adjudicated,” said Congresswoman Pingree. “Our bipartisan, bicameral Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act corrects the outdated standard of proof for veterans with a mental health diagnosis other than PTSD, increases access to MST-related health care, and strengthens oversight and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.”
Staunch advocates for strengthening benefits and care for MST survivors, the lawmakers introduced the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act in 2021, 2019, and 2017. Building on the Ruth Moore Act from previous Congresses, the legislation addresses issues uncovered by the VA Office of Inspector General in 2021 by requiring VA to process all MST claims via specially trained teams, conduct annual accuracy reviews for MST claims processing, and study the quality of Veterans Benefits Administration training on MST claims processing.
The lawmakers’ efforts to improve MST survivors’ care and benefits has strong backing from the nation’s leading Veterans Service Organizations.
“Survivors of military sexual trauma have some of the most complex cases in the VA claims system,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “It is imperative that the timeliness and accuracy of processing MST cases improves to ensure veterans get the care and benefits they have rightfully earned. DAV is proud to support the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023, which aims to handle the complexity of these cases with the sensitivity needed to address this issue accurately and appropriately. We appreciate Sens. Tester and Murkowski incorporating the voices of MST survivors in crafting this important legislation.”
“MOAA is encouraged by VA’s efforts to strengthen its culture and support to veterans who experienced military sexual trauma (MST) and we recognize more needs to be done,” said Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) President and CEO Lt Gen Brian Kelly. “We greatly appreciate Senators Tester and Murkowski reintroducing the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support (SAVES) Act to improve the collaboration and coordination of benefits and health care services that will not only benefit those impacted by MST but will help all veterans accessing or receiving VA services. MOAA lends its full support of the bill and will work with Congress and VA to ensure enactment and implementation of this important legislation.”
“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 Kristina Keenan. “The VFW strongly supports the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023, which would require VA to modernize the MST definition to include technological abuse, update the standard of proof for MST disability claims, and review MST training quality at VBA. This bill is a necessary step to ensure veterans’ MST claims are handled respectfully and that veterans receive these essential support services from VA. We thank Senators Tester and Murkowski for their bipartisan leadership on this issue and look forward to getting this bill passed into law.”
“The Servicemember and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 is supported wholeheartedly by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA),” said Kate O'Hare Palmer, Chair of the Women Veterans Committee. “This bipartisan legislation will address the unmet needs of these men and women who are survivors of MST, and more importantly, it will ensure they receive the healthcare and benefits they have earned by virtue of their service to our country, according to Senators Tester and Murkowski.”
“The Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 makes reforms that are urgently needed at the VA to best support veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma,” stated Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) CEO Allison Jaslow. “IAVA thanks Chairman Tester (D-MT) and Senator Murkowski (R-AK) for their bipartisan leadership in addressing the faults in the VA claims process that have led to survivors of MST being unnecessarily retraumatized. Congress now needs to act swiftly to pass the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023 so this travesty can end immediately.”
“Approximately one in ten 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. Congress helped close several gaps in VA service by passing meaningful legislation in recent months, and Wounded Warrior Project is proud support this renewed effort to continue that momentum. We are grateful for the sustained leadership of Senators Tester and Murkowski in their effort to bring more productive reforms to assist MST survivors through this important legislation.”
“Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) is proud to support the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act of 2023,” said PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Heather Ansley. “This legislation will help reduce barriers encountered by military sexual trauma (MST) survivors who file VA claims. Survivors of MST should not have to face re-traumatization while filing their claims. We support efforts to improve the claims process and ensure support for survivors throughout it. We are grateful to Senators Tester and Murkowski for their leadership on this issue and for prioritizing the welfare of MST Survivors.
“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.”
“For too long it has been far too difficult to get the healthcare and support our veterans who are survivors of MST deserve,” said Protect Our Defenders Vice Chair Josh Connolly. “The majority of service members don’t report their sexual assault because they will most likely be revictimized by a broken system. This legislation will help fix that. We applaud the reintroduction of the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act and call on Congress to swiftly pass this important and needed 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.”