WASHINGTON — The last thing a female veteran should have to fear at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility is being sexually assaulted.

But too often it happens, said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine. And after failing to prevent a sexual assault at one of its facilities, he said, the VA too often fails to properly report it.

Michaud, D-2nd District, spoke at a House hearing Monday that highlighted a federal report, released last week, that shows nearly 300 sexual assaults, including 67 rapes, were alleged to have occurred in the VA network from 2007 to 2010.

Most of the incidents were not reported up the chain of command to VA leadership or the VA inspector general, as required by law, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm.

“Women veterans should not have to worry about being subject to catcalls upon entering a facility, and they certainly should not have to worry about falling victim to sexual assault while receiving care,” said Michaud, who noted that both men and women have been sexually assaulted.

“Incidents like these simply should not happen,” Michaud said at the hearing. “When policies and procedures are not in place – or worse – not followed, we fall far short of our national commitment to provide the utmost level of care possible.”

Michaud, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s health subcommittee, was chairman of the subcommittee in 2008, when he asked the GAO to review VA health services for women.

Investigators unearthed concerns that male veterans who had been convicted of sex offenses were using a VA residential health facility also used by female veterans. That led the committee to ask the GAO to further investigate the problem of sexual assaults at VA residential facilities.

Michaud said the report details appalling incidents and a severe reporting breakdown in the system. It appears that the problem of sexual assaults at VA facilities is widespread, and that there must be better security at the facilities and a better system for reporting and dealing with incidents, he said.

About two-thirds of the 284 reports of sexual assault during the three years covered by the report were not properly reported up the VA chain of command. Some of the incidents involved patients assaulting other patients or employees, while others involved assaults by employees on patients or other employees.

At Monday’s hearing, the VA didn’t disagree with the report’s findings. It says it is adopting many of the GAO’s recommendations and has been working to ensure the safety of veterans at all of its facilities.

Michaud is not the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation involved in the issue of sexual assault in the military. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins have introduced separate bills designed to attack different aspects of the problem.

Collins’ legislation, introduced last week with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, would give the Pentagon new tools to better prosecute sex offenders and protect victims who are on active duty.

Pingree’s bill, which she wants the VA to put into effect administratively, aims to ease the path to needed benefits for veterans who have post-sexual assault trauma from their time in the military.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has pushed to reform the way the military deals with sexual assault and give military victims more access to emergency contraception medication that can be taken within three days of a rape.

 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]