Caring for Women Vets: A Response to “My VA Care”

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.

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8 Comments to “Caring for Women Vets: A Response to “My VA Care””

  1. MSG (ret) Arlene J. Kevitz says:

    I went to have an evaluation of the injury to my back and neck. I had a fall from a 5 ton truck and have compressed disks in my neck and lower back. I was informed I had to contact every Doctor I had ever seen with my complains and have 3 copies of their report made and return with all the documentation. Some Doctors had destroyed their reports (7 years) and some did send them to me. I copies them and still have not gone down to see them again. I was so disappointed the first time. I really don’t want to go back.

  2. Quinn Dahlstrom says:

    I finally decide to go into the VA — American Lake in Lakewood, WA and get a VA medical card– I just lost my husband to death — and I am thinking maybe there is something better at the VA— well there won’t be until next year when my husbands’ earnings goes off the board– ikn the mean time too bad female vet– you are surely and sorely out of luck— what a frigging hoot that was to hear.

    • Jon says:

      Quinn,
      You should have been enrolled under a “hardsdhip enrollment”. It’s too bad VA employees do not know about the various programs the VA has to offer. You should go back to your local VA center and ask to be processed under this program. It is specifically for veterans like you who lose a significant portion of their income. Here is the link:

      http://www.va.gov/healtheligibility/costs/Hardship.asp

      Hopefully you see this, and good luck!

  3. Jennifer Hunt says:

    Thank you for this Ms. Hayes. I know there are a lot of hard working people in the VA wokring towards improving services for all Veterans and their families. It just takes time. Hopefully my experience will help the VA towards that goal.

  4. Joanie says:

    I am glad that some women veterans have been treated equitablly by the VA; however, my first experience is one I do not want to repeat. After serving in Desert Shield and Desert Storm I had decided that was enough of the military life for me. To say the least, I was quite apalled by the lack of medical information/coordination when we returned to the states. All we were told was, “Don’t give blood”. Here it is 20 years later and I finally get up the courage to visit a VA hospital. I was totally disrespected and treated poorly by WOMEN that worked there. I was also told “Oh, so you aren’t really a combat veteran”. To say the least, there is much work to be done at all levels of the VA when it comes to women veterans. I can only hope that additional training occurs at the Kansas City VA Hospital when it comes to matters of veterans who decide to seek help (without being such a hassle) as far as simply doing the job a person is hired to do for the VA.

    Let’s put our personal feelings aside and act professional in our duties. Because of veterans such as myself, there would be no need for a VA hospital, clinic or outreach center. By the way, I can’t say much for the outreach when it comes to Gulf War veterans. I never received a letter or anything stating the possibility of being subjected to chemical or biological warfare. And as far as my medical records go…nobody can find those either. I risked my life, left my family and this is how you treat veterans?

  5. Kammy Chinnock says:

    I have run the gambit of experiences at the VA, from being told that there weren’t any female vets, we all got married and our husbands were taking care of us, to actually being called “Mr.” in the waiting room at the ER.

    I was admitted to the VA in San Bruno CA, to be told that I had to have a “private” room because the women’s ward (all 3 beds) was also the hospitals only burn bed, and it was needed for a man. I had a toilet chair in the room next to my bed and was escorted to the women’s shower room, when the gentleman in the burn bed was in therapy.

    This was 1982, and there really weren’t any services for female vets. The last combat that had happened, was Viet Nam; and no one wanted to remember that. I was a veteran of the Cold War. That shadow war that never happened, just look in the history books.

    Then 20 years ago, I had my daughter and spiralled down into post-partum depression. We then realized that it wasn’t just post-partum depression, it was bipolar depression and non-combat PTSD. They didn’t call it PTSD back then, women didn’t get stuff like that anyway. I had found a husband and he was taking care of me, but unfortunately, our insurance wasn’t. We got 12 mental health visits a year. I decided to give the VA another try.

    Boy, was I surprised. They acknowledged me as a vet, and a woman. I had therapists that were and still are very caring. They listen to me, they talk to me, not at me. They are the ones that came up with the non-combat PTSD. I get to see my therapist once a week, and my psychiatrist every three months. I can see my therapist more often if I need to.

    I have been so suprised and pleased by the new VA, that I now have a job working at the VA in Denver, CO. I am hoping that I am helping to ensure that no one else has a bad experience at the VA in Denver. I am working on one vet at a time.

  6. Roselynn Richardson says:

    Boy do I feel your pain. I am 63 and getting much better help now than I did 35 years ago. The VA is really improving and I am happy to say…….I WATCHED IT GROW!!!

    Thoughtheyare still working and striving to do better, there are still some issues to be worked on. But, that will come and we must help in anyway we can. I am writing to congratulate the VA and not to talk about my issues, but recognize th great things the Women’s Health Care has accomplished.

    Thank You VA

    Rose Richardson

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