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Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Urge VA to Address Harassment in VA Medical Facilities

Roe, Takano, Dunn, Brownley, Bergman, Pappas Pen Letter to Secretary Wilkie

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Washington, May 14, 2019 | Molly Jenkins (202-225-3527) | comments

Last week, Ranking Member Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), Chairman Mark Takano (D-Cali.), Rep. Neal Dunn, M.D. (R-Fla.), Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Cali,), Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) sent a letter to Secretary Wilkie calling on him to share information on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA’s) progress to address harassment of women veterans and employees in VA medical facilities. 

“[while] we applaud VA for funding research that systematically studied harassment of women veterans in VA health care settings,” the Members wrote, “we learned during the hearing training regarding harassment of or by veterans is not mandatory, and that it is possible there are employees across VA that have not been reached by direct intervention programs such as 'Own the Moment.' Furthermore, because all reporting is handled locally, there is no accountability regarding facilities that continue to fail to respond to sexual harassment.”

“It is unacceptable to me that women veterans face harassment anywhere, but it is particularly egregious to learn of the harassment that many of them face while attempting to seek care from VA,” said  Roe. “I applaud VA for taking action to study the experiences of women in VA medical facilities and to create a safer and more welcoming culture for women veterans and employees.  As this is National Women’s Health Week, there is perhaps no better time to double down on our commitment to ensuring women veterans can access the benefits they have earned without barriers. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues in Congress and the Administration to make sure that they have that opportunity."

“It’s clear that women veterans face unique challenges when accessing key VA care, benefits, and resources— and  thanks to Chairwoman Brownley’s leadership, we have a renewed focus on these challenges with the Women Veterans Task Force,” said Takano. “To change the culture at VA facilities, it’s not enough to simply have sexual harassment training available, this training has to be both mandatory and comprehensive. VA needs to step up to ensure all of our veterans can receive the care they earned and deserve free from harassment.” 

“Women veterans deserve to feel safe while in the care of the VA. Unfortunately, that is not always the case,” said Dunn, Ranking Member of the Health Subcommittee. “The systemic harassment of women veterans and female employees at the VA is unacceptable. As we work to improve veterans’ care and hold the VA accountable, we must continue to focus on the needs of our women veterans, which includes ensuring that no veteran faces harassment. I applaud Chairwoman Brownley’s leadership on this issue, and look forward to working with her to improve women veterans’ access to care at the VA.”

“VA has a responsibility to ensure a safe and respectful environment for women veterans and VA employees," said Brownley, Chair of the Health Subcommittee. "While VA has taken important steps to prevent and address sexual harassment, much more needs to be done to eradicate this pervasive and troubling problem.”

“More than 2 million living women veterans served our nation proudly, and it is imperative they are able to access their well-deserved care without facing harassment or inappropriate conduct,” said Pappas, Chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. “I applaud the VA for taking the steps to ensure all our veterans are able to access care in a safe and welcoming environment, but it is evident that significant work remains to be done. I look forward to working with the VA to develop policies to end harassment and misconduct and ensure the VA can fully carry out its mission to care for all of our veterans.”

“I am proud to join my colleagues in calling for the VA to tighten its focus and crack down on the sexual harassment of women Veterans and female employees at VA facilities,” said Bergman, Ranking Member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. “Those who’ve sacrificed to serve our nation and work to care for our Veterans should never be put in such toxic situations, and we must do more to address them.  We’re sending a strong bipartisan message that the status quo is unacceptable for anyone who works or seeks care at the VA”

In the letter, the Members called on VA to “report to the committee the nationwide collection of data at the local level regarding sexual harassment of both veterans and employees, and that this data be aggregated at VA Central Office. We also request an update on how VA plans to collect and implement best practices regarding response to sexual harassment on VA property.”

Read the full letter here and below:

May 10, 2019

The Honorable Robert Wilkie
Secretary
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Wilkie:

We write today to inquire as to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA’s) progress on implementation of the “End Harassment” campaign to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for both veterans and employees.

On May 2, 2019, the House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on “Cultural Barriers Impacting Women Veterans’ Access to Healthcare.” We are deeply concerned about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment experienced by both women veterans and female employees. Sexual harassment not only creates a barrier to healthcare, but to all resources and benefits that women veterans have earned. Moreover, VA employees who experience sexual harassment are not empowered to serve veterans to the best of their abilities and talents because they feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work.

We applaud VA for funding research that systematically studied harassment of women veterans in VA health care settings. The study, published in February 2019, found that over 25 percent of women veterans experienced inappropriate or unwanted comments or behavior by male veterans at VA in the past year. Furthermore, women veterans who experienced this unacceptable treatment by fellow veterans were more likely to report feeling unsafe and delaying or missing care.[1] In addition, a 2018 report from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board entitled ‘Update on Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace” found VA had the highest incidence of sexual harassment of employees of any federal agency. According to the report, 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men who worked at VA experienced sexual harassment.

VA also deserves recognition for responding swiftly with the initial implementation of the “End Harassment” campaign. However, we learned during the hearing training regarding harassment of or by veterans is not mandatory, and that it is possible there are employees across VA that have been untouched by direct intervention programs such as “Own the Moment.” Furthermore, because all reporting is handled locally, there is no accountability regarding facilities that continue to fail to respond to sexual harassment.

VA must do better. As the agency entrusted with providing healthcare and benefits to veterans, VA must take immediate and appropriate action to address toxic workplaces from the local level to VA Central Office. Therefore, we request VA report to the committee the nationwide collection of data at the local level regarding sexual harassment of both veterans and employees, and that this data be aggregated at VA Central Office. We also request an update on how VA plans to collect and implement best practices regarding response to sexual harassment on VA property. VA must also ensure point-of-contact information for individuals responsible for handling sexual harassment reports be prominently displayed in all buildings. Finally, we believe it is imperative that that all VA employees and contractors receive training on preventing and responding to sexual harassment of or by veterans on VA property and that you please provide us with your plan to ensure this happens in a timely manner.

We appreciate your attention to these important issues and for your support for equity in access to VA for all veterans, including the nation’s two million living women veterans. We request a response no later than close of business on May 23, 2019.

Thank you for your assistance. Should you have questions about this request, please contact Andrea Goldstein, Senior Policy Advisor, Women Veterans Task Force at andrea.goldstein@mail.house.gov.

Sincerely,    

 /s/

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