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The House of Representatives wants a March 1 deadline for the Veterans Affairs Department to improve how it tracks sexual assaults in its hospitals and clinics.
Acting in response to a June report from a congressional watchdog agency that found two-thirds of rapes at VA facilities were never reported to headquarters, the House on Tuesday passed by voice vote a bill ordering the centralized collection of reports of sexual assaults or other safety incidents at VA medical facilities.
Any allegation, whether confirmed or not, would have to be reported and investigated under the bill, HR 2075, which will not be binding unless it also passes the Senate.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said July 7 that its auditors found 284 incidents of sexual assault were reported to VA's local police over a 2˝-year period ending July 2010, but regional offices and VA leaders were never notified.
The volume and types of incidents are troubling to lawmakers. There were allegations of 67 rapes, 185 incidents of inappropriate touching, 13 incidents of forced oral sex, 11 other sexual assaults and eight cases of patients who said they were forced to take medical exams, according to the congressional report.
Eighty-nine of the cases involved allegations of patient-on-patient assault. There were 85 cases when a patient allegedly attacked a VA employee, 46 allegations of employees attacking patients and 15 allegations of employees attacking employees. The remaining cases involved visitors or outsiders as victim or perpetrator.
Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's health panel and chief sponsor of the bill, said the number of assaults and VA's failure to keep nationwide records that would show the scope of the problem reflects a "fundamental weakness" in the department that places employees and patients at unnecessary risk.
Buerkle, a registered nurse and former domestic violence counselor, said the lapse shows a "betrayal of trust" by VA.
The chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he was "sickened" by the unreported crimes. "Just one assault of this nature, one sexual predator, or one veteran's rights being violated within VA is one too many and is absolutely unacceptable," Miller said, suggesting that the real number of rapes and assaults could be far higher than the police report indicates because victims often are reluctant to come forward.
Most of the incidents involved men attacking women at VA facilities, in offices, hospital rooms, stairwells and parking lots. Only one allegation uncovered by congressional auditors involved a woman. She was a patient who allegedly attacked a male patient.