When I came to VA Central Office a few years ago, I brought with me more than 20 years experience working every day with Veterans at the Pittsburgh VA. I had seen firsthand the areas in VA women’s health care that needed improvement, such as reproductive care, maternity care, emergency room services, and so on. And I worried that a woman might come to a VA facility, have a negative experience, and be instantly turned off and go away; that she would never receive the excellent health care she deserves. The story that Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt shared in her guest post is what my colleagues and I are working every day to change.
Due to my experience and concerns, when I came to Washington I immediately began emphasizing that the number of women Veterans was expanding rapidly – doubling in just a few years – and that VA needed to change its services to meet this tremendous need. That message has not fallen on deaf ears. Big changes have been made in just the few short years since the launch of VA’s Women’s Health Initiative in 2008.
This progress includes:
- Improving access to care and enhancing services for women Veterans through new policies
- Publishing clearly worded handbooks for maternity and reproductive care, as well as infertility evaluation and treatment
- Implementing comprehensive primary care for women Veterans
- Conducting cutting-edge research on the effects of military service on women’s lives
- Improving communication and outreach to women Veterans
- Providing mental health, homelessness prevention, and other services designed to meet the unique needs of women Veterans
- Training more than 700 providers in Women Veterans’ Primary Health Care to ensure women Veterans are offered a women’s health provider who is skilled in taking care of her health problems.
- Recently initiating training for VA emergency rooms to improve triage and diagnosis for conditions more common in women, including aspects of pregnancy and maternity care.
- Including in VA pharmacies more of the contraception drugs that women need
- Adding women’s shoes, glasses, and wigs to the prosthetics supplies
- Spending over $390 million on remodeling and construction to ensure that exam and inpatient rooms are private and provide dignity to all Veterans’ hospital experiences
- Placing a Women Veterans Program Manager in every VA Health Care System, to lead in the roll-out of enhanced services for women, act as a resource for women Veterans and ensure delivery of the care they deserve.
I was thrilled to read that Staff Sergeant Hunt had a positive experience when she initially revisited VA in 2010, after her negative experience two years earlier, before the initiative was well underway. Her doctor was patient and respectful, and she received depression care that seemed tailored to her needs as a woman Veteran. She was quickly put in touch with a Women Veterans Program Manager who helped her learn of the services VA offers for maternity care.
For some services non-VA care is the best way to provide quality care to the Veteran. In the case of maternity care, most VA hospitals don’t see enough pregnancies yet to have enough practice or skill – so we often use non-VA care. This system doesn’t always work flawlessly just yet, as Staff Sergeant Hunt’s experience illustrated.
I recognize that we must provide excellent maternity coordination through direct and frequent communication with our Veterans in order for this type of care to work well. We use maternity templates across facilities to make sure women Veterans don’t fall through the cracks. We also recently added a system for maternity and newborn care to do a better job instituting and tracking this care. Our Director of Reproductive Health works to see that these systems are fully implemented and work as effectively as possible at all of our facilities. Her role is multifold, both writing the policies that improve women’s health care and looking for ways to collaborate with people throughout the VA to make sure women Veterans receive the best care possible.
Every time I see articles in the news or on the Internet about how something didn’t go well for a woman Veteran I think about all the women Veterans who need health care, who don’t have insurance or can’t find or afford care. I want them to try VA. And I want them to know that we are working as fast as we can to make positive changes and will continue to improve.
Some recent stories highlight how far we have come:
In Salt Lake City, June Perlman, a woman Veteran, sought out VA care 40 years after her military service ended. She believes that she receives “the best care,” the story quotes, and wants to help spread the word to other female Veterans.
USA Today honed in on VA efforts across the country to enhance care for women–from Asheville, NC, to Martinsburg, W.Va., and from Pittsburgh, PA, to Palo Alto, CA. Elsewhere, stories highlight different models of care available, like the new women’s clinic in Cincinnati, OH, and the tremendous scope of needs bringing women Veterans to VA, focusing on California.
When women volunteered to serve their country, they earned the benefits VA is working hard to ensure they receive. We can deliver no less and are working tirelessly to keep this promise to our women Veterans.
Dr. Patricia Hayes is the Chief Consultant for Women Veterans Health. She has expertise in sexual trauma and recovery, having served for seven years as Victim Services Coordinator at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, a nonprofit counseling service. She later worked at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, initially using her expertise in PTSD counseling with Veterans. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Hayes was appointed as Lead Women Veteran Program manager for Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Dr. Hayes has also published peer-reviewed research and regularly lectured University of Pittsburgh medical students, residents, and medical and psychology fellows.