Despite some progress, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a long ways to go in improving health care for female veterans.
The Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009 was signed into law in May. The bill, spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., directs VA to get serious about reforming a veterans medical care system designed for male veterans.
Time is of the essence; tens of thousands of female veterans who have served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home, many in need of mental and physical care specific to women’s needs.
For instance, about 22 percent of the women using the VA health care system are suffering from the effects of sexual trauma experienced while serving in the military. These women are nine times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than women who weren’t sexually assaulted while in the military.
Compare those statistics with the findings of an audit of VA medical centers by the Government Accountability Office this spring.
GAO surveyed 19 VA medical centers. Only two of them had tampon or sanitary-napkin dispensers in public bathrooms. None of the centers surveyed was in complete compliance with regulations that govern women’s privacy.
Only 37 percent of the VA’s 144 medical centers had a gynecologist on their medical staff.
Veterans Affairs is clearly struggling to reform a hospital system created in 1930 for retired service members who were all men.
Flash forward 80 years. There are about 1.8 million female veterans, a number that has grown steadily since women other than nurses were allowed to first serve in the regular and reserve forces in 1948. Women represent 7 percent of the total veteran population.
Women make up about 15 percent of the U.S. current active duty, guard and reserve forces. As soldiers from the two overseas combat zones come home, the number of female veterans projected to use the VA system is expected to double in the next five years.
About two-thirds of the female veterans who have served in Iran and Afghanistan and enrolled in health care programs are under 30 and in the prime of their childbearing age. However, it wasn’t until May that VA was authorized to care for newborns.
There are other alarming statistics that point to the urgent need for VA to expand programs for female veterans. For instance, divorce rates among female soldiers on active duty are three times higher than their male counterparts.
The Department of Veteran Affairs also acknowledges that female veterans are four times as likely to end up homeless as male veterans and twice as likely as civilian women.
There are signs that conditions are starting to change in the VA medical systems. A few cases in point:
• The VA last year completed a hiring program to install a full-time program manager in charge of coordinating care for women veterans issues at all 144 of its hospitals.
• Outpatient and inpatient trauma treatment programs are cropping up around the country, including one staffed almost entirely by women in Menlo Park, Calif.
• The Veterans Health Administration published a handbook that provides guidelines to its medical personnel for proper care of women, including privacy requirements. In addition, some 400 health care providers in the VA system have received crash courses in the past two years on health care topics specific to women, including contraception and cervical-cancer screening.
• The VA has set aside $210 million in its 2011 budget for programs aimed at women veterans, including a call center available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as a social-networking site for female combat veterans.
Changing the male-dominated culture at VA is long overdue. Congress and advocates for women veterans must keep the pressure on to accelerate the necessary reforms.