1 in 4 women veterans, employees report sexual harassment at VA. Congress wants answers.

Abbie Bennett
July 22, 2020 - 3:13 pm

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez

Editor's note: This story includes details of sexual harassment and assault.

A paralyzed woman veteran was in her Department of Veterans Affairs hospital room when a male veteran came in, exposed himself and made lewd comments.

Because she has limited use of her arms and legs, the man "made her feel very unsafe, as she would be physically unable to defend herself" if he attacked her, Paralyzed Veterans of America told members of Congress.

A male veteran told a woman Army veteran at a VA medical facility that he would "love to grab a fistful of that red hair and show you how a man can really make you feel" and said she did not "look like a veteran." 

Those were just two of many stories of harassment veterans shared with lawmakers in written testimony Wednesday.

Capitol Hill lawmakers wanted answers from VA after a Government Accountability report showed that one in four employees at the massive federal agency experienced sexual harassment and one in three staff witnessed harassment. Previous VA data showed one in four women veterans also face harassment at VA medical facilities and that some women veterans delayed care because of it. 

They weren't convinced preventing harassment is a major priority at VA.

VA officials touted recent accomplishments, including a growing number of women veterans seeking care through the department, the results of in-house customer satisfaction surveys, its ballooning budget and how it has handled the coronavirus pandemic so far. But they provided few substantive details on how VA is reducing harassment and holding those who perpetrate it accountable today, focusing mostly on changes that could take years to implement -- until 2024, in some cases. 

The joint hearing between the Women Veterans Task Force and House Veterans Affairs oversight and investigations subpanel was held Wednesday in response to the Government Accountability Office report released last week that showed the prevalence of employee sexual harassment, and policies to prevent and address that harassment "are inconsistent and incomplete" and hinder VA's ability to protect employees.

Data shows employees and patients at VA face pervasive sexual harassment, which Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. called "deeply troubling" and arguing that VA's "pace must increase" and preventing and addressing harassment must be a "much higher priority."

"VA is not doing enough," Pappas said. 

GAO's report noted a lack of accountability in implementing programs and policies that could prevent and address harassment. 

Four years after announcing plans for a VA Harassment Prevention Program, VA still has not formally approved the effort, intended to prevent harassment and address it "before it becomes unlawful." Equal Employment Opportunity violations reported at VA, including for harassment, can take years to resolve. 

"Only through accountability can we bring sexual harassment at the VA to an end," said Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich. "Three years to process a complaint does not inspire confidence that the system is working efficiently or effectively." 

Chairman Rep. Mark Takano cited documents showing VA has recognized harassment as an issue within the department since the early 1990s. 

"I'm growing impatient with this," he said. "If you need more money ... come back and tell us what you need." 

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., was also visibly frustrated by how long VA said it could take to enact some of its planned changes.

"We're having trouble trying to find out why it's going to take VA this long to implement changes on such a vital issue," he said. 

Acting VA Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers, in her first testimony before Congress in her new role, said VA does not tolerate behaviors that create intimidating, offensive or hostile environments.

"As a veteran who uses VA health care myself, ensuring our VA facilities are welcoming and safe is a personal issue for me as well," she said, touting the increasing number of women seeking care through VA (41 percent, or about 800,000). 

"I do know it happens," she said of sexual harassment at VA. "Some male veterans do not treat our female veterans well."

But Powers said she does not believe sexual harassment is "pervasive" at VA.

"I disagree with the premise that we have pervasive sexual harassment at VA," she said. "The data doesn't show that ... I do not agree that is pervasive." Powers did not cite any alternative statistics. 

The harassment many of those veterans face can lead up to 20 percent of women veterans to delay seeking needed health care, Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., argued. "We are out of time and we need corrective action now." Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., called harassment a "significant barrier" to women veterans getting care at VA.

Powers repeatedly cited in-house customer satisfaction surveys, with 17 percent response rates, arguing that women trust VA care and believe VA facilities are a "safe and welcoming environment." 

A federal survey found that about 22 percent of VA employees reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. VA had the highest rate of sexual harassment of the 24 federal agencies surveyed -- about 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported experiencing harassment over the two years. LGBTQ and Black women can face even higher rates of harassment.

Surveys of private, non-VA hospitals show about 5 percent of women report harassment, said Joy Ilem, DAV national legislative director, compared to the more than 25 percent of women VA patients and employees.

Women make up about 60 percent of VA's workforce and 30 percent of those women are also veterans, Powers said.

From 2016, VA resolved just 15 cases of sexual harassment with corrective action, Brownley said. 

VA officials said the department has launched an anti-harassment campaign, increased employee training, launched a task force on harassment and assault and appointed a senior advisor for assault and harassment prevention, Powers said. VA also is planning to add bystander intervention training in September, though it's unclear how much of VA's training is required or voluntary for employees or patients. 

"We have an older generation," Powers said. "I can't change the mind of that 75-year-old (veteran) but we can certainly address that behavior." She did not elaborate on how specifically VA addresses sexual harassment when it occurs. 

The GAO report echoed many concerns cited in previous reports and by lawmakers, advocates and survivors about sexual harassment and assault of patients at VA, which some have referred to as an "epidemic." 

Sexual harassment complaints at VA have increased in recent years, though the numbers likely underestimate the total cases filed since the department does not require harassment complaints to be reported to VA headquarters. In 2016, VA had 158 cases, which grew to 168 in 2017, a high of 225 in 2018 and 180 in 2019. 

VA has come under increasing pressure to address sexual harassment and assault of veterans and employees in recent years. In February, the VA Office of the Inspector General announced it would examine Secretary Robert Wilkie over allegations he sought damaging information about veteran and senior Congressional advisor Andrea Goldstein after she reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. 

That investigation is still ongoing. The investigation into Goldstein's assault concluded earlier this year with no criminal charges filed. Multiple sources with knowledge of the case told Connecting Vets that was due, at least in part, to a lack of functioning security cameras at the hospital in the area the assault took place. Public records obtained by Connecting Vets confirmed that no viable video was recovered because the security camera was not functioning. 

Veterans Affairs sexual harassment policies 'inconsistent and incomplete,' report finds

VA Inspector General to examine whether VA Sec tried to discredit veteran over sexual assault report

1 in 5 veterans' military sexual trauma claims were wrongly denied or mishandled by VA, officials say

Congresswoman introduces bill to end 'epidemic' of harassment, sexual assault at VA

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.