A pair of Republican senators are questioning whether Veterans Affairs officials are doing enough to prevent and punish sexual assault at department locations in light of several high-profile “disturbing” charges against VA employees.
In a letter released Tuesday, the two women — Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — asked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to outline the number of sexual assault convictions against department workers in recent years, as well as detail oversight policies for contractors and response procedures for reports of such assaults.
“Recent incidents indicate that there may be lingering issues within VA policies, procedures and system that must be resolved,” the pair wrote. “We are disturbed by these allegations and feel it is essential that we understand better what the VA is doing to address the problems and prevent them.”
In September, federal authorities announced they were investigating allegations of multiple sexual assaults against VA patients at a West Virginia department hospital. VA officials have said that an employee was fired over the allegations, but have not released further details.
Days after that news, a San Diego area physician working with VA pled guilty to assaulting and exploiting five female patients referred to him by department health officials.
And about a week after that, a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffer said she was harassed and assaulted by a patient at the Washington, D.C. VA medical center. That prompted calls from the committee chairman for a full review of all sexual harassment and assault policies throughout department locations.
Women make up about 10 percent of the nation’s veterans population, 17 percent of current military personnel and 30 percent of military service academy students. The number of women using VA health services has more than tripled over the last two decades.
Advocates have said that VA has struggled to keep up with that changing demographic, leading to uneven services across department health care locations and unclear policies related to harassment and assault.
But VA leaders have said they are making steady improvements, and have made addressing those issues a top priority.
The senators have asked for a formal response to their questions by the end of next week. Monday is Veterans Day.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.