WASHINGTON — Frustrated by VA’s handling of sexual assaults committed in VA facilities and on VA property, legislators have introduced a bill to address safety vulnerabilities and force the agency to develop a comprehensive tracking system for sexual assault.
According to VA officials, the agency is already on its way to meeting the criteria laid out in the legislation, and that certain provisions in the bill — namely those addressing the reporting of alcohol and substance abuse incidents — may actually deter patients from seeking needed medical care from VA.
Filling Safety Gaps
In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report criticizing VA’s ability to track and respond to sexual assaults that have occurred in or near facilities around the country. The report found that, between January 2007 and July 2010, nearly 300 sexual assault cases, including 67 alleged rapes, were reported to VA police.
What was troubling to GAO investigators, and to legislators reading the report, was that many of these incidents were not reported to facility leadership or to VA Central Office, in violation of federal regulations. The report also found serious deficiencies in VA guidance and leadership on the reporting, management and tracking of sexual assaults. The department, the report stated, failed to accurately assess risk for sexual assault in facilities or take precautionary measures. Investigators also reported inadequate surveillance systems, including failing or damaged surveillance equipment.
The Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act (HR 2074) was introduced by House VA Subcommittee on Health Chairwoman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-NY, and was the major topic of discussion at a recent legislative hearing. The bill seeks to fill the oversight gaps identified in GAO’s report.
“This bill will create a fundamentally safer environment for veteran patients and employees,” Buerkle said. “It requires VA to develop clear and comprehensive criteria in respect to the reporting of sexual assault and other safety instances. It establishes a clear oversight system within the VA administration, including a centralized comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking sexual assaults, covering all alleged or suspected forms of unsafe acts. And it includes the systematic monitoring of instances to ensure each case is fully investigated and victims receive appropriate care.”
The bill also mandates that VA develop risk-assessment tools, create mandatory safety and awareness training for department employees, as well as establish physical security precautions, including appropriate surveillance and alarm systems that are operable and regularly tested.