Late Breaking News
'Powerful' Testimony by Military Sexual Trauma Victims Spotlights VA Care Gaps
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON - In testimony called “devastating” by the subcommittee chairman, a panel of military sexual assault survivors appealed for better care and treatment for military sexual trauma (MST) survivors at a recent congressional hearing.
“Right now, at our Indianapolis VA Medical Center, the wait to get in to see someone to treat you for military sexual trauma is almost two years. If we could utilize our local [civilian] healthcare providers and mental health providers, I know the men and women in Indiana would use that,” lawmakers were told by Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran and MST survivor.
Suggesting that MST survivors need to be able to access care outside of VA if they prefer, Wilkin said that getting approval from for that is a “difficult process.”
During the nearly three-hour hearing, three other MST survivors also told lawmakers that sexual-assault care at VA facilities often was inadequate and not readily available.
The hearing underscored the growing attention that military sexual assaults have been receiving on Capitol Hill, particularly after a recent DoD report that the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact among active duty troops increased to about 26,000 in 2012, compared with an earlier estimate of 19,000.
“Last fiscal year, there were roughly 71 incidents of sexual assault every single day among those who wear our uniform. To say this is unacceptable does not adequately describe the terrible reality of military sexual assault and the lasting effects it could have on the lives of those who experience it,” said House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Benishek, (R-MI) at the onset of the hearing.
MST Advocates Testify
Tara Johnson, a former Marine, told lawmakers during the hearing that she endured several incidences of MST during her military career but was never screened for MST by a VA provider, despite her symptoms of PTSD.
Another MST survivor, Victoria Sanders, told lawmakers that she feels some of the VA providers she saw were unqualified to treat patients suffering the effects of MST.
“Since I have moved my care to the San Francisco VA, I have only seen two actual full-fledged doctors,” she said. “The rest were interns, residents, doctoral candidates and doctoral fellows. They were not licensed and trained in specific trauma therapy.”
MST victim Brian Lewis, meanwhile, testified about the challenges that men face in getting sexual trauma care. He said there are not enough VA resources specifically geared to male victims. Of the 12 PTSD residential treatment facilities that specifically treat sexual trauma, only one accepts male patients, he said. That facility, the Center for Sexual Trauma Services at VAMC Bay Pines, is coeducational.
“Put simply, male survivors have no single gender residential program designed specifically for survivors of military sexual trauma,” he said.
VA Care Gaps
VA officials acknowledged at the hearing that gaps in care for MST victims, as illustrated by the testimony, must be better addressed.
“I think they really presented a powerful story. I think they point out that inasmuch as we in the VA have done a lot for survivors of MST over the last few years, we also feel there are significant gaps that have been pointed out by the panel that we need to really take a careful look at and address,” Rajiv Jain, MD, VHA assistant deputy undersecretary for Patient Care Services, told lawmakers.
Benishek, who called the testimony given by the victims “devastating,” wanted to know whether Jain agreed that this situation is an “emergency.”
“I would agree, and we would certainly go back and take a very critical look at how we have structured services and what can we do to address some of the gaps,” Jain told him.
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) asked Jain about screening at VA for MST, pointing to Johnson’s testimony that screening is not occurring despite policy requiring it. Brownley also said she thought screening should not be a one-time event.
Jain agreed that the policy concerning screening needed s review.
“We need to look at our procedures for screening to see if there is a way we could offer some kind of another chance to have the screening done in a simpler way,” he said.
Also testifying was DoD Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Karen S. Guice, MD. When asked about a General Accountability Office report published earlier this year suggesting that military healthcare providers did not have a consistent understanding of their responsibilities in caring for sexual assault victims, she told lawmakers that DoD has a new guidance that aims to ensure that MST victims receive appropriate care.
“All healthcare providers who come into contact or who have any kind of role or responsibility for sexual assault and treating those patients are required to have an initial treatment [course] and an annual refresher course,” Guice said. “Those who actually perform the SAFE exam … are required to have very specific training to a national standard.”