The Department of Veterans Affairs incorrectly processed hundreds of claims related to military sexual trauma last year -- a breakdown in procedure that may have "resulted in the denial of benefits to veterans who could have been entitled to receive them," according to a report from the VA's Office of the Inspector General released Tuesday.
The Veterans Benefits Administration denied nearly half of the 12,000 claims that were filed in 2017 by veterans seeking support for post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma, according to the department.
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But investigators estimated that the VA failed to follow procedure when processing 1,300 of the 2,700 claims that were denied during a review period that spanned between April and September of 2017.
The report concluded that "multiple factors led to the improper processing and denial of (military sexual trauma)-related claims" during that time, including: "a lack of reviewers' specialization and no additional level of review, discontinued special focus reviews, and inadequate training."
"Incomplete processing may lead to inaccurate claims decisions and psychological harm to (military sexual trauma) victims," the report noted.
While the issue of sexual assault in the military has been widely reported for years, the momentum of the #MeToo movement has prompted a renewed effort for transparency within the armed services.
The Pentagon has said that it remains committed to addressing the issue of sexual assault and harassment within the ranks as survivors demand accountability from military leadership -- but encouraging victims to come forward and report sexually violent crimes remains a major challenge.
More than 5,200 service members reported a sexual assault in 2017 for "an incident that occurred during their military service, an increase of about 10 percent from the previous year," Tuesday's report said.
"However, VA is aware that because of the nature of military sexual trauma ... stressors, it is often difficult for a victim to report or document the event when it occurs," the report stated.
"As a result, if the (military sexual trauma) leads to PTSD, it is often difficult for victims of (military sexual trauma) to produce the required evidence to support the occurrence of the reported assault," it said.
When asked for comment, a VA spokesperson referred CNN to the department's official response within the report which states it "concurs with the findings" and outlines the implementation of procedural requirements intended to " further ensure the quality of all (military sexual trauma)-related claims."
In a subsequent statement provided to CNN, VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour said, "VA appreciates the inspector general's oversight and concurs or concurs in principle with each of the IG's six recommendations, which the department will begin implementing right away."
"We know this is an area where the department can improve. That's why VA has required all of its claims processors to take MST training and pledged to review each and every denied MST-related claim decided between October 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018," Cashour added.
"If mistakes were made, we will fix them in order to ensure affected Veterans are getting all of the support, benefits and services they have earned," he said.
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