Many veterans face difficulties when trying to access care from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). Veterans may be forced to wait weeks for appointments or are unable to find the services they need. Survivors of military sexual trauma (MST), which includes both sexual assault and severe sexual harassment that occurred in-service, often have even more trouble accessing care.
According to the Department of Defense, over 20,000 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014. Many service members were assaulted more than once, resulting in over 47,000 assaults that year alone. Eventually, many of these veterans look to the VA for care. In 2013 alone, nearly 100,000 veterans attended over 1 million outpatient appointments at the VA for needs related to MST. Over the coming years, thousands more survivors will find themselves in need of medical care at an increasingly overloaded VA.
There have been efforts to boost veterans’ access to health care. In August 2014, Congress established the Choice Program as part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The Choice Program allows veterans to receive medical services from health facilities that are not part of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. In many ways, such non-VA health care providers may be better equipped to support certain veterans. For example, these providers may be able to see patients sooner than the VA, or they may offer more specialized services to address the specific needs of a veteran.
However, too many survivors of MST do not qualify for the Choice Program and still face difficulties when trying to receive care. The Choice Program is intended to open doors to different and more accessible care for those who have been unable to receive it. However, this program only applies to veterans who live at least forty-miles away from the closest VA facility, or who have been waiting more than thirty days for an appointment. Simply being an MST survivor or needing specific services outside the VA is not enough to participate. If the Choice Program applied to more veterans, those who suffer from MST could chose to go to a facility that specializes in treating survivors.
While the Choice Program makes strides in increasing veterans’ access to timely care, lawmakers should allow the program to grow and grant more veterans the ability to choose where they want to be treated. According to the Military Times, there are still many issues that the program does not address. For example, there are many veterans who may live within forty miles of a VA health center but need to see a specialist or require treatment that the closest center does not provide. Current regulations surrounding the Choice Program do not have any flexibility when these situations occur.
The Choice Program can be improved by allowing more veterans to see specialists who are not associated with the VA. For instance, if a survivor of MST needs to see a psychologist and only lives 20 miles away from a VA center, then under current law, the survivor has to see a psychologist at the VA. However, if that center does not have a psychologist who specializes in sexual trauma, that survivor will not receive the best possible care for their recovery.
In March 2015, Congressman Andy Barr (R-KY) reintroduced H.R. 1603 – The Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment (SAVE) Act. The bill currently has 55 cosponsors, including Congresswomen Jackie Speier (D-CA), who has been a fierce advocate for survivors. This bill seeks to amend the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 by adding MST survivors to the list of those who can receive treatment at non-VA facilities under the Choice Program. The Military SAVE act would allow veterans who experienced sexual trauma during active duty, or active or inactive duty training, to receive treatment outside of the VA.
Although lawmakers have continued to sign onto the Military SAVE Act, this bill has yet to be introduced for a vote on the House floor or introduced in the Senate. More support is required to ensure the Military SAVE Act is passed and implemented. You can help support this bill by calling or writing your Representative to express your support, or by joining Protect Our Defenders’ mailing list and participating in our calls to action. Thank you for all that you do to support survivors.