WASHINGTON – A Veterans Affairs official told a congressional panel on Monday the agency is making improvements to protect patients from rape in treatment facilities after Congress' investigative arm found nearly 300 reports of sexual assaults in the centers over three years.
Clinicians have expressed concern about the safety of female veterans housed near veterans who had committed sexual crimes, which prompted the Government Accountability Office review, Randall B. Williamson, director of health care with GAO, testified.
Using VA police reports, his office found that 67 of the reports referenced an alleged rape in one of its approximately 300 residential living programs or in-treatment psychiatric wards from January 2007 to July 2010. Those accused in the incidents and the victims were primarily veterans and staff members. While a majority of the victims were female, many of them were male.
The GAO said in a report last week that the VA relies too heavily on patients to identify themselves as sexual predators, which potentially puts other veterans living near them in danger. It found facilities with security cameras and alarms systems not property working. It said such crimes were too often not reported to proper authorities within the VA's system.
And the GAO said the VA has inconsistent definitions of what is considered an assault along with unclear reporting expectations, which led to some assaults not being reported by medical facilities to VA police.
For example, VA police files showed at one center a veteran accused in one incident had previously been involved in other sexual assaults. But the earlier incidents weren't reported by medical staff because the workers "believed these behaviors were a manifestation of the veterans' clinical conditions," the GAO said.
William Schoenhard, deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management with the Veterans Health Administration, said the VA agrees with the GAO's recommendations for improvement and has created a workgroup to consider ways to address the problem. He said even when top VA officials weren't notified about such attacks, he's confident they were appropriately handled at the local level. In 2009, the VA said it developed an integrated system that allows serious crimes to be reported on VA properties 24 hours a day.
Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., who chaired the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee hearing Monday, and Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the full House Veterans' Affairs Committee, have filed legislation that would force the VA to better track such attacks and maintain security systems in facilities.
"This is not the way to run a health care system and it is certainly not the way to treat the men and women who sacrificed so much on behalf of our nation," Buerkle said.
Data was not immediately available to compare sexual assault incidents in VA facilities to those in similar facilities run by the private sector.