Last updated: March 24. 2014 10:25AM - 382 Views
Thomas Crisp Contributing Columnist

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The Senate on 6 MAR rejected a proposal to move sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command, instead backing simpler reforms to the military justice system. Victim advocates lamented the vote, which fell five senators short of advancing past a procedural hurdle, as a lost opportunity and a potentially discouraging message to female service members who face harassment and intimidation. But opponents of the proposal — among them, Pentagon leaders — called it a well-intentioned overreach that would handicap military efforts to crack down on sexual assaults.

“The strongest, most effective approach we can take to reduce sexual assault is to hold commanders accountable,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). “To do this, we must maintain the important authority to prosecute sexual assaults that our military commanders now have, and add greater accountability for those commanders.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would have overhauled sexual assault prosecution in the military by taking the decision of whether to pursue legal action away from commanders, instead giving it to independent prosecutors. Gillibrand said the move was the only way to ensure that serious crimes were pursued instead of covered up. Over the course of dozens of hearings and press conferences in the last year, she and supporters chastised a military old-boys network that re-victimized sexual assault survivors, convincing many that it was better to stay silent than seek justice.

“Today, many members of the Senate have turned their back on these victims and survivors,” she said after the vote. But opponents of her plan challenged her victims-vs-commanders narrative, saying that a reform package backed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was a more reasoned approach to solving the problem. Her legislation, which sailed through a procedural vote without opposition, is expected to be passed by the full Senate on Monday. It would remove the “good soldier” defense for troops, preventing military character from being used in trials to refute sexual assault claims, and allow victims’ input in whether their cases are tried in military or civilian courts.

McCaskill called the vote on her measure — and the defeat of Gillibrand’s bill — a victory for victims and the military. “We have a laundry list of things that will protect victims, bring perpetrators to justice, and hold our commanders accountable.” Thursday’s Senate vote came the same day as the start of trial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, accused of forcing a female captain to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her family if she publicly acknowledged their three-year affair.

The case against Sinclair became a cornerstone of a year-long debate about sexual assault in the military, and whether senior defense officials could be trusted to fix systemic cultural problems in the ranks. In addition, Army officials confirmed Thursday that a lieutenant colonel who supervises sexual assault prosecution for the entire service is under investigation for allegedly groping a female colleague.

McCaskill said she is hopeful House leaders will move ahead with her measure after it passes the Senate next week. Last year, as part of the annual defense authorization bill, Congress passed a host of related sexual assault reforms, including independent legal counsel for victims and mandatory dishonorable discharges for troops convicted of those crimes. Gillibrand, meanwhile, vowed to continue her fight.

She hinted she may push to include the idea in the next defense authorization bill, despite resistance from Senate Armed Services Committee members. “What we’ve heard from military commanders for 20 years is zero tolerance,” she said, “but what we’ve seen is zero accountability.”

GAO Uncovers Denial Errors

Even as the Obama administration works to provide health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, government investigators uncovered dozens of cases where the VA failed to cover emergency hospital costs for uninsured disabled veterans. Government Accountability Office investigators say the series of errors committed by the VA could be examples of a broader problem in a specialized area of compensation. The Department of Veterans Affairs must reimburse non-

VA hospitals that provide emergency care to disabled veterans - such as for car accident injuries - if the veteran is uninsured, enrolled in VA health care and has received recent treatment at VA. Federal law requires that such emergency expenses be covered by the federal government even if the injury or illness is not related to the veteran’s service-connected disability. But when GAO looked at a sample of 128 of these claims brought by non-VA hospitals in 2012 seeking reimbursement and that were later denied by the VA, investigators discovered mistakes in half of them, the report says.

The claims were brought to four VA hospitals - Washington D.C. VA Medical Center, White River Junction VA Medical Center in Vermont, Black Hills VA Health Care System in South Dakota and the North Texas VA Health Care System. The GAO said its investigation “raises concerns about the extent to which other VA facilities nationwide may be inappropriately denying claims.” VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said the department is taking steps to better educate employees about handling these claims and better informing veterans about the benefit and how it works.

The VA has since gone back and paid claims in 25 of the cases uncovered by GAO. In two-thirds of the claims GAO examined, there was evidence the VA never informed disabled veterans that their health care expenses would not be paid by the VA, leaving them unaware of appeal rights. When private hospitals were not reimbursed by the VA, they were left to bill the uninsured veterans directly. “These are not wealthy veterans,” says Randall Williamson, the supervising GAO investigator for the report. Some of the mistakes by VA staff included failing to promptly date-stamp claims, sending them to the wrong payment office, routing them to the wrong VA facility and incorrectly concluding that veterans were not eligible.

“They were sloppy,” Williamson said of the VA processors. A 15-year-old law known as the Millennium Act was designed to discourage disabled veterans from racing long distances to the nearest VA hospital when they need emergency treatment, the GAO report says. The VA estimates it will spend $580 million on this benefit in 2015. “This report confirms what we’ve suspected for some time: VA’s weak oversight of veterans’ Millennium Act claims is placing an undue burden on veterans,” says Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which requested the investigation.

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