WASHINGTON – A House committee has advanced a bill named for a Maine woman that aims to help veterans qualify for disability benefits for mental health problems resulting from sexual assaults.
The version of the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 that the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee endorsed on Wednesday would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to update its policies on veterans who are dealing with military sexual trauma.
While it would not be required to make the changes, the department would have to comply with significant reporting requirements to veterans whose claims are pending until the policies are updated. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
“This is a major step forward in our fight to level the playing field for veterans who were victims of sexual assault and have been fighting to get the benefits they deserve,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, the lead sponsor of the legislation.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.
The bill aims to make it easier for veterans to receive benefits by essentially setting the same standards for sexual assault survivors as for veterans seeking disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.
To qualify, an applicant would need a diagnosis of a mental health condition and a link between the assault and the mental health condition.
The original bill would have required the Department of Veterans Affairs to make the changes. The bill was amended in committee for procedural reasons to express “the sense of Congress” that the VA’s policies be changed, because a congressional requirement would likely have carried a hefty cost.
In the House, supporters of the bill would have had to find money to offset the cost of the new requirements.
The bill’s namesake is Ruth Moore of Milbridge, who was raped twice by a superior officer while she was a young Navy enlistee serving overseas. Moore reported the crime but her attacker was never prosecuted. She was not properly treated by the Navy, hospitalized as being suicidal and subsequently discharged.
Moore struggled for decades with emotional and health problems related to the incidents but was repeatedly denied benefits because her records had been expunged, which advocacy groups say is common. She eventually gained partial benefits and, in July, went public for the first time in news reports and testimony before a congressional committee.
The bill has been a top priority for groups such as the Service Women’s Action Network as organizations and members of Congress have intensified pressure on military leaders to aggressively address the issue of sexual assault in the military.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released a report estimating that 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year. That figure, based on actual reports and anonymous surveys of military personnel, is up substantially over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
The report bolstered statements that the vast majority of sexual assault victims — both male and female — never disclose the crimes out of fear of retaliation, concerns about it harming their chances for promotion or beliefs that the allegations will not be seriously investigated or prosecuted.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. An identical bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is pending in a Senate committee.
During a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee meeting, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said the attitude among top generals toward sexual assault has clearly improved in recent years.
“And yet, nevertheless, we keep hearing of incident after incident. And we don’t seem to be making the progress that we need to make,” Collins told Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh. “Ultimately, this is going to affect recruitment. If I were a parent with a daughter who is thinking of going into the military today, I would think twice about whether the environment is safe for her, not from the enemy, but from sexual assault from her fellow military members.”
Collins pressed Welsh on why some service members who have been convicted of sexual assault are permitted to stay in the military. She said if the issue needs a congressional fix, she is willing to draft the legislation.
Welsh said very few service members who are convicted of sexual assaults are allowed to stay in the military. Although the court sentences may not always indicate a discharge, most are removed administratively.
But he acknowledged that the Air Force “needs to do more.”
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