At Hearing Focused on Women Veterans, Tester Stresses Need to Improve Care and Benefits for Survivors of Military Sexual Trauma

VSO and veteran witnesses highlighted strong support for Chairman Tester’s legislative effort to ease the evidentiary burden of proof for survivors of military sexual trauma when applying for VA benefits

During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing yesterday on improving care and resources for women veterans, Chairman Jon Tester questioned a panel of woman veterans and advocates, including Dr. Alissa Engel, a Montana veteran and mental health provider, on his Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Actbipartisan legislation that would expand the evidentiary standard for military sexual trauma (MST) survivors applying for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits. VA estimates more than one-third of women veterans experienced MST during their military service.

“Dr. Engel, I share many of your concerns about the military sexual trauma claims process and would like your input on a change that may help ease the process for survivors,” said Chairman Tester. “When so many sexual assaults go unreported in the military, it is my belief that we need to require the VA to consider non-DoD evidence…when reviewing claims for all MST-related mental health conditions. I’d like you to comment on that and tell me if this could potentially change the impact for MST survivors?”

“…I absolutely think that that would make it better for survivors,” said Dr. Engel, a Montana veteran, therapist specializing in the military and veteran community, and current member of the Montana Air National Guard. “Like we’ve talked about, they typically don’t report or they report after a large amount of time goes by, and when they do report it, it tends to be people that they’re close to…not the formal channels. So if we allow non-DoD proof, it really opens up the door there…it gives [MST survivors] more power and control.”

Advocates from the Disabled American Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, and Paralyzed Veterans of America also underscored their support of the Senator’sServicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act and emphasized how the legislative reform would positively impact MST survivors by easing their burden of proof when applying for VA benefits.

Tester also questioned officials from VA and VA’s Office of Inspector General on VA’s implementation of his Deborah Sampson Acta landmark law he championed in 2021 to provide women veterans with better access to VA health care and benefits. VA officials highlighted the Department’s work to implement the law, including its effort to roll out requirements to improve MST claims processing, such as using specialized, highly-trained teams to process MST claims. As of January 2024, 128,000 veterans are service-connected for MST-related conditions and receiving disability compensation, more than two times the number of veterans who were receiving these benefits in Fiscal Year 2019. 

Reiterating his support for ensuring women veterans have the resources they need, Tester concluded: “…The bottom line is, we all need to get on the same page when it comes to women’s health and particularly military sexual trauma…I want to make sure that the women veterans are getting what they need when they go to the VA, they’re not being turned away, they’re not being hit with red tape, and they’re being accommodated.”

Women veterans are the fastest growing demographic group in the veteran community, and account for more than 11% of the total veteran population. More than 900,000 women veterans are currently enrolled in VA health care and more than 702,000 are receiving VA disability benefits.

A long-time advocate of strengthening benefits and care for MST survivors, Tester championed provisions in the Deborah Sampson Act in 2021 mandating VA expand eligibility for MST care and allowing VA to treat physical conditions arising from MST, in addition to mental health conditions. This Congress, Tester also reintroduced the bipartisan, bicameral Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act to improve MST survivors’ access to care and benefits and bolster MST claims processing. He has led the charge in introducing this legislation in 2021, 2019, and 2017.

In August 2023, Tester also called on VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to take immediate action to improve servicemembers’ access to MST care and resources and address the findings of a Government Accountability Office report on improving guidance, access to care, and training for servicemembers regarding MST resources and care.


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