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VA vows to address sexual assaults in hospitals

Jun. 8, 2011 - 10:23AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 8, 2011 - 10:23AM  |  
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In the face of a damaging congressional report that disclosed 300 sexual assaults in VA hospitals, with patients often the victims, Veterans Affairs Department officials say they are committed to improving protections and prosecuting those who violated the law.

"Patient and employee safety and security are paramount," said VA spokesman Josh Taylor.

"We are taking steps to expand and improve our reporting of allegations and to provide more secure facilities for our patients," Taylor said. "The bottom line is that we have a responsibility to protect those veterans in our care, as they have protected our nation, and we will continue to strengthen our facilities to ensure that our veterans receive high-quality medical care in safe, secure facilities."

His comments were in response to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office that found 284 sexual assaults were reported at VA hospitals and clinics from January 2007 through July 2010. The report, requested by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, faulted VA's security practices for not adequately screening patients to determine who might become a sexual offender and for failing to provide safeguards for patients and employees, including lax or nonexistent surveillance and alarm system that malfunctioned or did not notify security or other people nearby in the same unit when someone feared assault.

The report show there were 67 allegations of rape, 185 allegations of inappropriate touching, eight allegations of "forceful" medical examinations, 13 allegations of forced or inappropriate oral sex, and 11 other alleged sexual assaults. The report did not say how many of the reports of sexual assault were substantiated, nor did it mention the outcome of complaints.

Taylor said complaints are fully investigated. "VA is committed to ensuring that those who have violated the law on VA property are brought to justice to protect our patients, employees, and visitors," he said.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Monday to hear from VA officials and veterans groups about patient and employee safety. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman who requested the report, said, "Most disturbing is a question that has yet been answered: How widespread is this problem? I am committed to finding the answer to that question and ensuring that our veterans and VA employees are safe from offensive sexual attacks."

The House committee will consider a bill, HR 2074, aimed at improving safety and security in VA facilities.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the number of sexual assaults shows "an intolerable breakdown in VA's duty to safeguard our veterans."

"It also shows that VA has serious work to do to provide basic patient safety for thousands of women veterans who are turning to VA for care — including for the invisible wounds of war," Murray said. "VA needs to act immediately to make real changes to its security procedures to protect against these types of assaults and to ensure they are being reported properly."

The full report can be found http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11530.pdf">online.

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