Senate passes landmark women veterans' care legislation

Members of the Military take part in the opening ceremony before the Women's Singles final match between Serena Williams of the United States and Bianca Andreescu of Canadaon day thirteen of the 2019 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 07, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City.
Members of the Military take part in the opening ceremony before the Women's Singles final match between Serena Williams of the United States and Bianca Andreescu of Canadaon day thirteen of the 2019 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 07, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. Photo credit Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

What may be the most significant legislative effort for women veterans in the last two years passed out of the Senate this week, one step closer to becoming law.

The Deborah Sampson Act, an omnibus bill intended to remove barriers and improve women veterans' care, passed the House more than a year ago. It was the culmination of years of work for Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Montana, who introduced the original legislation in 2017, as well as the House Women Veterans Task Force, led by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California. Now, after a few changes, it heads back to the House for final approval before it moves to the president's desk to become law. House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, said the House is expected to vote to send the bill to the president in coming days.

That legislation passed the Senate this week as part of a larger package of veteran legislation, including assistance for homeless and housing insecure veterans, veteran job retraining and a new advisory committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs.

The women veterans' legislation aims to address a range of issues for women veterans -- the fastest growing group of veterans numbering roughly 2 million nationwide. Women have served in the United States military in one form or another since the Revolutionary War, but still struggle to access the Department of Veterans Affairs care and benefits they've earned. Veterans Affairs lawmakers on Capitol Hill have made legislating on their behalf a focus over the last few years, especially as VA statistics show that women who receive care at VA have lower risk of suicide and other health concerns than those who don't.

The Deborah Sampson Act includes measures to:
- Establish a systemwide comprehensive policy to end gender-based harassment and sexual harassment and assault at VA, including training for employees;
- Staff each VA healthcare facility with a dedicated women's health primary care provider;
- Creates a dedicated Office of Women's Health at VA;
- Retrofit VA facilities to enhance privacy and improve care environments for women vets;
- Expand eligibility for military sexual trauma counseling to Guard and Reserve veterans;
- Improve the claims process for MST survivors at VBA;
- Expand child care for veterans receiving VA care;
- Permanently authorize PTSD counseling for women veterans in retreat-style settings;
- Provide gender-specific healthcare equipment such as mammography machines at each VA medical center;
- Establish and improve care standards for women at VA;
- Provide more funding for women veteran programs;
- Provide extended care for newborns;
- Expands call center services for women veterans;
- Require a Government Accountability Office report on homeless or at-risk women veterans;
- Study, pilot program and task force to examine intimate partner violence and sexual assault against women veterans;
- Require more reporting on women veterans' services and benefits.

“This is an historic step forward for women veterans across the nation, as well as their families, caregivers and survivors,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, chairwoman of the House Women Veterans Task Force, instrumental in crafting the legislation. “We must provide all veterans the care and benefits they have earned and deserve—which requires providing equity to women veterans. I am so proud that by passing this legislation, we are telling our women veterans: you are not invisible.”

Tester, another key lawmaker behind the legislative effort, called it a "groundbreaking moment" as Congress pushes VA to provide better care for the nearly 2 million American women veterans.

"Women have served in uniform since the American Revolution and are now the fastest growing population of veterans in the country," Tester said. "It’s our responsibility to make sure VA health care and benefits are tailored to meet their needs and are accessible to them and their families. Unanimous passage of my Deborah Sampson Act — and of the entire legislative package — sends a clear message that Congress is willing to come together to do what’s necessary and follow through on our responsibility to support all veterans.”

The bill's passage through Congress comes in the midst of a scathing report from VA's independent watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, released Thursday. A nearly yearlong investigation found that Secretary Robert Wilkie and senior VA officials sought to discredit a woman veteran and senior Congressional advisory who reported being sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C. VA hospital, repeatedly questioning her credibility and failing to properly handle her case.

Wilkie had previously been accused of seeking damaging information on the veteran and ordering his staff to shop that information to national media. Wilkie denied allegations against him, and while the OIG could not substantiate that Wilkie investigated, or ordered an investigation of the veteran, it did find he mishandled her case and that he and his staff repeatedly disparaged her.

VA leaders also failed to take action against the man accused of sexually assaulting the veteran. VA police ran a background check on the veteran almost immediately, sharing it with senior leaders, but it took days for them to run the same check on the man accused of the assault -- a VA contractor with a history of sexually harassing VA staff, a criminal background and a lack of credentials to be at the hospital the day of the assault.

VA officials have repeatedly downplayed sexual assault in department facilities while vowing to take all incidents seriously, despite veterans and VA staff coming forward to share stories of systemic harassment and assault and a lack of effort from VA leaders to protect them. Federal watchdog reports have found that VA's sexual harassment policies are "inconsistent and incomplete" and surveys of employees and veterans found that one in four women veterans and VA staff report sexual harassment at the department.

The woman veteran who reported her harassment at the D.C. VA serves as advisor on the House Women Veterans Task Force and said she was carrying an early form of the Deborah Sampson Act in her bag when she was assaulted.

On Thursday that veteran, Andrea Goldstein, a Naval intelligence officer now serving in the Reserves, said she planned to continue fighting for change.

"As a Congressional staffer, woman veteran and Navy officer, I remain dedicated to serving those whose voices have been silenced by those who should protect them," she said. "Women veterans are amongst the strongest and most resilient people you will ever meet. We are not invisible."

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.