DOD Has Taken Steps to Meet the Health Needs of Deployed Servicewomen, but Actions Are Needed to Enhance Care for Sexual Assault Victims
GAO-13-182: Published: Jan 29, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2013.
What GAO Found
The Department of Defense (DOD) is taking steps to address the health care needs of deployed servicewomen. For example, DOD has put in place policies and guidance that include female-specific aspects to help address the health care needs of servicewomen during deployment. Also, as part of pre-deployment preparations, servicewomen are screened for potentially deployment-limiting conditions, such as pregnancy, and DOD officials and health care providers with whom GAO met noted that such screening helps ensure that many female-specific health care needs are addressed prior to deployment. GAO also found that DOD components have conducted reviews of the health care needs of servicewomen during deployments and are collecting data on the medical services provided to deployed servicewomen.
At the 15 selected locations GAO visited in Afghanistan and aboard Navy vessels, health care providers and most servicewomen indicated that the available health care services generally met deployed servicewomen's needs. In Afghanistan and aboard Navy vessels, health care providers said they were capable of providing a wide range of the female-specific health care services that deployed servicewomen might seek, and servicewomen GAO spoke with indicated that deployed women's needs were generally being met. Specifically, based on information provided by the 92 servicewomen GAO interviewed, 60 indicated that they felt the medical and mental health needs of women were generally being met during deployments; 8 indicated they did not feel those needs were generally being met during deployments; an additional 8 indicated a mixed opinion; and 16 said they did not have an opinion. For example, some servicewomen told GAO that they were satisfied with their military health care, given the operating environment. Among those who expressed dissatisfaction with their military heath care, GAO heard a concern about difficulty in obtaining medications. Among those who expressed mixed views, a comment was raised that junior health care providers were limited in the types of procedures they could perform and lacked practical experience.
DOD has taken steps to provide medical and mental health care to victims of sexual assault, but several factors affect the availability of care. For example, this care can vary by service and can be impacted by operational factors, such as transportation and communication challenges, that are inherent to the deployed environment. Further, military health care providers do not have a consistent understanding of their responsibilities in caring for sexual assault victims because the department has not established guidance for the treatment of injuries stemming from sexual assault--which requires that specific steps are taken while providing care to help ensure a victim's right to confidentiality. Additionally, while the services provide required annual refresher training to first responders, GAO found that some of these responders were not always aware of the health care services available to sexual assault victims because not all of them are completing the required training. Without having a clearer understanding of their responsibilities, health care providers and first responders will be impeded in their ability to provide effective support for servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault.
Why GAO Did This Study
The roles for women in the military have been expanding and evolving. Servicewomen today are integral to combat, combat support, and counterinsurgency operations, and serve in many roles they previously did not hold. Pub. L. No. 112-81, 725 (2011) mandated that GAO conduct a review of the female-specific health care services provided by DOD to female servicemembers, including the treatment of servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault. In this report, GAO evaluates the extent to which (1) DOD is addressing the health care needs of deployed servicewomen; (2) female-specific health care services are available to deployed servicewomen; and (3) medical and mental health care are available to servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault. GAO reviewed pertinent DOD policies, guidance, and data. GAO also met with health care providers, servicewomen, and others during site visits to 18 locations where servicewomen are currently serving or deployed, including 15 installations in Afghanistan and Navy vessels.
What GAO Recommends
To enhance the medical and mental health care for servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault, GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop department-level guidance on the provision of care to victims of sexual assault; and (2) take steps to improve first responders' compliance with the department's requirements for annual refresher training. DOD did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation. DOD concurred with the second recommendation.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In December 2016, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs issued a Defense Health Agency-Interim Procedures Memorandum (DHA-IPM 16-004) that established a plan to improve medical care response to victims of sexual assault so that victims receive a coordinated, compassionate, and competent approach to address both physical and behavioral healthcare needs within the Military Health System (MHS)and identified health care providers' responsibilities to respond to and care for sexual assault victims, whether in the U.S. or in deployed environments.
Recommendation: To help ensure that sexual assault victims have consistent access to health care services and the reporting options specified in DOD's sexual assault prevention and response policies, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs to develop and implement department-level guidance on the provision of medical and mental health care to victims of sexual assault that specifies health care providers' responsibilities to respond to and care for sexual assault victims, whether in the United States or in deployed environments.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: DOD and the services have each taken steps to improve Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), Victim Advocate (VA), and health care provider compliance with the annual refresher training requirement. In FY 13, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force implemented the DoD Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program (D-SAACP), which ties the required credentialing process for SARCs and VAs to the completion of annual training requirements. In addition, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs issued a memorandum in December 2016 in which it reinforced the requirement that all health care providers receive annual training.
Recommendation: To help ensure that Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, Victim Advocates, and health care personnel have a consistent understanding of the medical and mental health resources available at their respective locations for sexual assault victims, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the military departments, to take steps to improve compliance regarding the completion of annual refresher training on sexual assault prevention and response.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense