Members of Congress clashed with veterans’ rights advocates who objected Tuesday to a bill giving veterans who are victims of sexual assault in the military the chance to skip the VA and get treatment at private clinics on the government’s dime.
Lawmakers said the legislation can solve problems of long waits and what they saw as hostile environments at Veterans Affairs clinics.
“I think that those victims of military sexual trauma ought to be able to choose the best treatment options available in their specific case rather than having it dictated to them,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican. “I think it’s a very personal thing, that interaction between a therapist and a patient, and I really think that individuals ought to be able to select what is best for them.”
The move to toward care in private clinics arose after Susan Moseley, an Army veteran, approached Rep. Andy Barr, Kentucky Republican, after her rape and her experience at a VA facility. She testified to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that her sergeant raped her repeatedly at Fort Bliss, Texas. When she sought care at the VA, she faced long waits — often in rooms with men in military fatigues, a situation that “triggered” her, she said. She was told she was “lucky” when a woman was on duty.
“He tried to take my soul,” she told the committee about her rape, her voice breaking. “I was beyond broken. I wanted to die.”
Mr. Barr has introduced the Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment Act to expand Choice Act eligibility to any victim of military sexual assault, giving them access to private clinics without trying to get an appointment at a VA clinic first. The VA is understaffed and does not have enough female mental health specialists, which Mr. Barr said are reasons why victims should be able to seek mental health care where they feel more comfortable.
The Choice Card program was approved last year, in the wake of the VA wait-time scandal, to let veterans see private doctors at government cost if they have waited too long for appointments or live too far from VA clinics for visits to be convenient.
Veterans organizations said adding more people to the Choice Card program isn’t the solution for rape and sexual assault victims.
“The VFW agrees that VA lacks the resources and capacity to provide timely mental health care to all the veterans it serves,” said Carlos Fuentes, the senior legislative associate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “However, veterans who have used the Veterans Choice Program also report having long wait times for care or not being able to find a private health care provider willing to see them.”
Disabled American Veterans said it, too, was leaning against the bill because the answer was too broad for an isolated problem.
“We do not believe the failure of one facility is justification for enacting this legislation — a bill that would do little to improve every VA facility’s ability to care for [military sexual trauma] survivors,” said Adrian Atizado, assistant national legislative director for the group.
Rep. Ann Kuster, New Hampshire Democrat, said she supported helping military sexual assault survivors go to private doctors, especially in rural areas where wait times might be significantly longer, but expressed concern that doing so might make the VA less motivated to change its approach to timely mental health care.
“I hesitate to let the VA off the hook,” she said.