Nearly one-quarter of employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they have been subjected to unwanted sexual comments and other harassment — one of the highest levels in federal government — and an audit says the Trump administration has not been doing enough to protect them.
At a House hearing Wednesday, lawmakers heard VA express a commitment to "changing the culture" to make the department more welcoming to women, but that long-sought improvements urged by the Government Accountability Office could take until 2024 to fully implement.
Lawmakers responded that they were not willing to wait, even if it meant passing legislation to force more immediate changes.
"The VA is not the same VA as four years ago," insisted acting VA Deputy Secretary Pam Powers, pointing to increased outreach to women and improved trust ratings in the VA from employees and patients alike according to internal polling.
Training, leadership structure faulted
The GAO audit said the agency had outdated training and policies, a leadership structure that creates conflicts of interest in reviewing harassment complaints, and gaps in reporting complaints to VA headquarters in Washington.
Powers said the agency was addressing the issue but stressed that personnel and other fixes required more money. She said some changes wouldn't start until 2024, in part because "every hour we spend takes away from patient care."
"It's an ongoing process, and we've certainly addressed a lot," Powers said. "We have a very targeted effort."
Expressing frustration and puzzlement about protracted delays, Representative Chris Pappas, who heads the House Veterans Affairs oversight panel, said he would introduce legislation to ensure quicker action. His effort seeks to reinforce a call by top Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees last week for a faster timeline.
"Clearly Congress has a role to play," said Pappas, D-N.H. "The Department of Veterans Affairs is simply moving too slowly."
In its report, the GAO analyzed data from a Merit Systems Protection Board survey and found 22% of VA employees experienced sexual harassment between 2014 and 2016, compared with an estimated 14% of federal employees across agencies. About one in three VA employees reported witnessing an act of sexual harassment.
Overall, an estimated 26% of female and 14% of male VA employees experienced harassment during the two years.
Meanwhile, 158 sexual harassment cases were filed through VA's formal process in 2016, a figure likely understated because not all complaints are required to be reported to VA headquarters. Since then, the number of cases has grown — 168 in 2017, before reaching a high of 225 in 2018. Last year, there were 180 cases filed.
Veterans groups and lawmakers say they're worried the numbers reflect a broader culture problem at VA, also involving harassment and assault of patients.
Speaking on the delays, Representative Ann Kuster, D-N.H., called it frustrating to see so little change and "persistent, pervasive" bias at the VA. "I can't help but feel that this is partly due to the leadership at the top of this country — not having respect for members of the military, but most importantly for women serving our country," she said.
Lengthy process time
Representative Jack Bergman of Michigan, the top Republican on the panel, said he found it appalling that a sexual harassment complaint made by a VA employee takes about 1,100 days to process, according to VA figures. "Three years to process a complaint does not inspire confidence that the system is working efficiently or effectively," he said.
A study released by the VA last year found one in four female veterans using VA health care reported inappropriate comments by male veterans on VA grounds, raising concerns they may delay or miss their treatments.
The VA also has rebuffed efforts by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other groups to change the VA motto, which some vets believe is outdated and excludes women. That motto refers to the VA's mission to fulfill a promise of President Abraham Lincoln "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."
In February, the VA inspector general office also said it would examine Secretary Robert Wilkie over allegations he sought damaging information about veteran and congressional adviser Andrea Goldstein after she reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. The IG review is ongoing.
"We are out of time, and we need corrective action now," said Representative Julia Brownley, D-Calif., who chairs the House's Women Veterans Task Force.
While veterans overall have strongly backed President Donald Trump throughout his presidency, views vary widely by party, gender and age, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of 2018 midterm voters. In particular, younger veterans and women generally were more skeptical of Trump, who has faced accusations of sexual harassment and received multiple draft deferments to avoid going to Vietnam.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to boost VA services for women.
"A Biden administration will not tolerate the culture of sexual assault that has become all too common in our military and veteran sectors," said Biden spokesman Jamal Brown. "As president, Joe Biden is committed to instituting policies that seek to eliminate discrimination and end harassment, and fostering a more inclusive federal government."
Currently, about 10% of the nation's veterans are female. In the U.S. military forces, about 17% of those enlisted are women, up from about 2% in 1973.