WASHINGTON—In light of alarming reports detailing incidents of sexual assault and harassment at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), a combat veteran, and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) are calling on officials to quickly bring information forward to identify gaps in the VA’s policies, to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents, and to hold perpetrators accountable.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Senators Ernst and Capito are calling for information from the department. The senators write: “The recent incidents indicate that there may be lingering issues within VA policies, procedure, and system that must be resolved. 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 from happening in the future.”
A 2011 report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered deficiencies in the VA’s oversight resulting from unclear reporting standards, a lack of risk assessment tools, and an inadequate amount of information about a veteran’s legal history to generate a comprehensive risk-assessment process. As a result, the VA implemented nine recommendations from the GAO to help resolve these issues. However, since then, there have been several high-profile incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
In their letter, the senators are demanding answers to the following questions:
1. How does the VA assess the credentials of contracting providers? Do standards exist to ensure these providers have no history of sexual assault or sexual harassment? If not, how can the department improve this process?
2. How many current employees of the VA have been convicted of sexual assault or had a complaint involving sexual assault sustained by an administrative determination? Has the VA increased an employee’s rate of basic pay, awarded an employee a bonus, or promoted an employee after said employee was found to have a Title VII sexual assault complaint declared final by administrative or judicial determination?
3. Does the VA offer counseling and other services to victims who were sexually assaulted while receiving care from the Department? What is the VA’s policy on making sure that victims are properly attended to if they do fall victim to this crime?
4. How is the department working with medical staff, non-medical staff, and patients to raise awareness about sexual assault and sexual harassment at VA facilities?
5. What are the current VA policies for reporting and responding to instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment? What actions does the department take to hold perpetrators of sexual assault or sexual harassment accountable?
6. How is the VA working with the Department of Defense to gather information about sexual assault in the military in order to improve programming across the Veterans Health Administration to better understand the needs of veterans who were victims of sexual assault while on active duty?
7. Last, what is the department doing to accommodate the needs of our growing female veteran population at VA medical facilities?
The senators gave Secretary Wilkie a deadline of November 14 to respond. You can read the full letter here.