Nearly 1 in 4 VA employees report sex harassment, audit says

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Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., together with other lawmakers and supporters speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill about ending sexual harassment and assault in the U.S. military and Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – Nearly 1 in 4 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’re not willing to wait, even if it means 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.

The GAO audit said the agency has outdated training and policies, a leadership structure that creates conflicts of interest in reviewing harassment complaints, and gaps in reporting complaints to VA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 require more money. She said some changes won’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, Rep. Chris Pappas, who heads the House Veterans Affairs oversight panel, said he will 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 Committee last week for a faster timeline.