Politics & Government

Bill would require VA to offer sexual assault counseling

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of seven U.S. senators proposed legislation Wednesday that would improve health care for female soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and require the Veteran Administration's mental health staff to be trained to counsel victims of sexual assault.

Two of the bill's sponsors, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said they'd attended town hall forums for veterans where men were outspoken about their health problems, but women waited until after the meetings to whisper some of their concerns, including sexual assault.

"Women don't have to whisper to me anymore," Murray said.

"We've got a VA system that we look to with a fair amount of pride in terms of how they serve our veterans," Murkowski said.

The legislation would require that the VA system adapt to care for the 90,000 women who have served in the military since 2001. The number of female veterans accessing VA care is expected to double in the next five years, and the bill requires each VA center to have at least one women's health expert on staff.

The legislation also would authorize several studies of female veterans, including one that looks at women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and studies the effects of the conflicts on their physical, mental and reproductive health. The bill also requires the VA to take a look at the barriers to access that women face at male-dominated VA clinics.

The bill's other sponsors are Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.