Today, the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs held a hearing about women veterans care at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The hearing highlighted some of the major gains and problem areas at VA for services and support for women veterans. Below are the highlights from today, but you can see the full hearing here or read the full testimony of Dr. Patricia Hayes, Chief Consultant for Women’s Health Services at VA here.
Over the past 10 years, the services and support for women veterans has grown leaps and bounds. And so have the number of women veterans looking for care at VA. According to VA, the number of women veterans seeking care at VA has tripled since 2001! That number is only expected to rise as women make up a growing percent of the active duty force (16%) and new recruits (almost 20%).
VA has adjusted its services to support these women veterans by creating Women’s Health Primary Care Providers and Women Veterans Program Managers who are at almost every VA medical center nationwide. VA has on-site gynecologist at almost every medical center (except 24) to support the special needs of women veterans. And VA’s maternity care and cancer screenings for female-specific cancers are on par if not better than the private sector. This is all great news for women veterans as VA has invested heavily in ensuring specific care is available for women veterans at their local facilities.
However, that’s not to say that the work is done. Culture change continues to be a massive barrier to care at VA. Acknowledged several times throughout the hearing, harassment at VA is a systemic issue that oftentimes happens between patients, in waiting rooms, and while veterans are checking in or leaving care. VA is addressing this issue through their End Harassment Campaign, but IAVA and others continue to hear stories of women veterans being verbally harassed when trying to access care.
Alarmingly, VA reported today that 40 percent of women veterans at VA have at least one mental health diagnosis like PTSD, anxiety, or depression. VA has invested resources into creating gender-specific mental health care and trainings and gender-tailored prescribing practices. However, there is a shortage of mental health clinicians at VA as a whole and to properly support women veterans and their specific mental health care needs, ensuring that there are enough mental health care providers overall is essential.
Similarly, an influx of women veterans is stressing an already overstretched primary care system as VA faces a shortage of primary care physicians nationwide. Just last week, VA released their vacancy notices showing over 49,000 open positions at VA, with almost half of those in the medical or dental field. Supporting the influx of women veterans into VA with specialized care means ensuring there are enough clinicians available and on staff to support that care. VA must fill these vacancies and come up with creative solutions to attract the best talent to VA for all veterans.
One More Thing
Though brought up in this hearing, it’s important to note that Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is not a women veterans issue. Both men and women experience Military Sexual Assault which can lead to MST. All veterans are screened for MST when they enter VA for care. With that said, we did get some updated numbers on MST at today’s hearing: VA is now reporting that 29% of all women veterans screen positive for MST. That’s up from the 1 in 4 figure we’ve heard from VA in the past. And while that number alone is disheartening, a piece of good news: about 81% want treatment for their MST related injuries, which means those that need help are willing and able to get it.
When IAVA launched the #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign in 2017, we knew barriers to care at VA and culture change would be the two leading, and toughest, issues facing women veterans. We’ll continue to fight on the front lines to ensure women veterans nationwide feel supported and cared for, whether that’s at VA or not. Today and everyday, we have your back.