Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Opening Statement of Hon. Ann Marie Buerkle, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Health
Good afternoon. This hearing will come to order.
Today, we meet to discuss a number of legislative proposals aimed at improving the care provided to our Nation’s veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The seven bills on our agenda today are: H.R. 198, the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act; H.R. 1154, the Veterans Equal Treatment for Service Dogs Act; H.R. 1855, the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitative Services Act of 2011; H.R. 2074, the Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act; H.R. 2530, to provide increased flexibility in establishing reimbursement rates for nursing home care provided to certain veterans in State Homes; draft legislation, the Veterans Health Care Capital Facilities Improvement Act of 2011; and, draft legislation, the Honey Sue Newby Spina Bifida Attendant Care Act.
This hearing represents an important step in the legislative process and, as such, I look forward to a frank and productive conversation about the policy implications, merits, and potential unintended consequences of each of the proposals on our agenda.
One of the bills we will discuss this afternoon is H.R. 2074, the Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act, a bill I introduced in response to a truly alarming report issued last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the prevalence of sexual assault and other safety incidents in VA facilities. I am pleased to sponsor this legislation with our Chairman, Jeff Miller, and with Ranking Members, Bob Filner and Mike Michaud as co-sponsors.
In their report, GAO found that between January 2007 and July 2010 nearly 300 sexual assaults, including 67 alleged rapes, were reported to VA police.
Troublingly, and in direct violation of federal regulations and VA policy, many of these incidents were not properly reported to VA leadership officials or the VA Office of the Inspector General.
As disturbing, GAO uncovered serious deficiencies in the guidance and oversight provided by VA leadership officials on the reporting, management, and tracking of sexual assault and other safety incidents.
GAO also found that the Department failed to accurately assess risk or take effective precautionary measures, with inadequate monitoring of surveillance systems and malfunctioning or failing panic alarms.
As a domestic violence counselor, I have seen firsthand the pervasive and damaging effects sexual assault can have on the lives of those who experience it.
Abusive behavior like the kind documented by GAO is unacceptable in any form, but for it to be found in what should be an environment of caring for our honored veterans is simply intolerable.
H.R. 2074 would address the safety vulnerabilities, security problems, and oversight failures identified by GAO and create a fundamentally safer environment for veteran patients and VA employees.
Specifically, H.R. 2074 would require VA to develop clear and comprehensive criteria with respect to the reporting of sexual assault and other safety incidents for both clinical and law enforcement personnel.
It would establish a newly accountable oversight system within the Veterans Health Administration to include a centralized and comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking sexual assault incidents, covering all alleged or suspected forms of abusive or unsafe acts, as well as the systematic monitoring of reported incidents to ensure each case is fully investigated and victims receive appropriate treatment.
To correct serious weaknesses observed in the physical security of VA medical facilities and improve the Department’s ability to appropriately assess risk and take the proper preventative steps, H.R. 2074 would mandate the Department to develop risk assessment tools, create a mandatory safety awareness and preparedness training program for employees, and establish physical security precautions including appropriate surveillance and panic alarm systems that are operable and regularly tested.
It is critically important that we take every available step to protect the personal safety and well-being of the veterans who seek care through the VA and all of the hardworking employees who strive to provide that care on a daily basis.
I am eager to discuss H.R. 2074 this afternoon and am here to answer any questions my colleagues may have about this legislation.
Also on our agenda today is a draft Committee proposal, the Veterans Health Care Capital Facilities Improvement Act of 2011. This draft legislation incorporates the Administration’s fiscal year 2012 construction request to authorize major medical facility projects and leases. The draft proposal also modifies the statutory requirements for the Department to provide a prospectus to Congress when seeking authorization for a major medical facility project to ensure we receive a comprehensive and accurate cost-benefit analysis as the basis for making these critical decisions.
It also extends authorities to provide for important programs related to such initiatives as housing assistance for homeless veterans and treatment and rehabilitation for veterans with serious mental illness, both of which are set to expire at the end of this calendar year.
Additionally, section six of the draft bill seeks to provide an extension of VA’s enhanced use lease authority which is also set to expire this year. This authority is an innovative and vitally important approach to supporting goals we all share, such as reducing homelessness among the veteran population and making effective use of vacant or underutilized VA property, through public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office has scored this provision with a mandatory spending cost of $700 million. We want to work with the Department and the veterans service organizations to resolve this scoring issue to ensure that VA has the authority to continue utilizing this important program.
The draft bill also includes legislation that was brought to us by our colleague from Colorado, Mr. Scott Tipton, to designate the telehealth clinic in Craig, Colorado as the “Major William Edward Adams Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic.” Major William Edward Adams is a Medal of Honor recipient and Scott has provided a statement for the record detailing Major Adam’s courageous service to our country.
I want to thank all of the Members who sponsored the bills and draft legislation before us, as well as the witnesses from the veterans services organizations and the Department, for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their expertise with us this afternoon. I look forward to our discussion and will now yield to the Ranking Member, Mr. Michaud for any opening statement he may have.