I was very pleased to be included Saturday in a panel discussion on VA health care and benefits for women Veterans on the first day of the 117th VFW Convention. I gave an overview of the history and mission of the Center for Women Veterans and briefly discussed benefits for women Veterans; Dr. Sally Haskell, deputy chief consultant, Women’s Health Services, VHA then described women Veterans’ health care in VHA.
This was followed by a lively panel discussion in which members of the VFW Women’s Advisory Team and former State Commanders Amber Putnam of Florida; Nancy Cowan of Missouri; Cheryl Shannon of Wyoming; and Marlene Roll of New York shared findings from the recent VFW survey of its women Veteran members; they and audience members also shared personal observations and anecdotes. Dr. Haskell and I discussed VA’s progress in some of these areas. Highlights of the dialogue, moderated by VFW’s Deputy Director of National Veterans Services Dawn Jirak, included the following:
- Older women Veterans are less likely to self-identify as Veterans, know they may be eligible for VA benefits, or use VA care. VA has a national campaign, “I’m One” to encourage women Veterans to identify as Veterans, and making outreach calls to women Veterans through the Women Veterans Call Center. Over 278,000 successful outbound calls have been made.
- Some women Veteran VFW members report being treated as spouses when they walk in to VA medical facilities. Even in some Vet Centers, not all VA representatives treat women Veterans with the dignity and respect they deserve. VA is actively working to change the language, practice, and culture throughout VA to make it more welcoming to women Veterans through monthly campaigns and posters in VA medical centers.
- Not all locations that serve homeless Veterans take women Veterans, especially those with children. VA is targeting programs for women Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
- Less than half of women Veteran VFW members report being given the option to choose the gender of their health care provider at VA; 80 percent would be moderately, very, or extremely likely to choose a same-gender provider. Women Veterans are, by VA policy, able to choose the gender of their providers, and over 90 percent of designated women’s health providers are female. In any case where there is not a female provider available, women can be seen at other VA’s sites or through “Care in the Community.”
- Some members report wanting VA providers to have more competencies on mental health issues related to women Veterans. This was addressed through a mini-residency on women Veterans mental health held in Spring, 2016 where women’s mental health providers received three days of face-to=face training and women’s mental health champions were identified at every health care system.
- Specialized and suitable prosthetics for women are also desired. Last year, VA teamed up with the Ipsos Girls’ Lounge to host an exhibit on this at the National Maker Fair.
- Alternative and complementary medicine options to improve quality of life for fibromyalgia and other conditions are desired by some women Veterans. VA’s office of Patient Centered Care is focusing on enhancing the availability of complementary and integrative medicine to Veterans at all sites of care.
As the panel drew to a close, one audience member shared that since she began coming to VA in 1997, she has seen tremendous improvements in the care and service she has received as a woman Veteran. It was gratifying to end with validation that while we must continue to focus on improving the woman Veteran experience, the Department is making progress on that path. We are grateful to VFW for its dedicated advocacy on behalf of women Veterans at local, state, and national levels – and for including us in this discussion, allowing us to both share what VA is currently doing and learn more about else must be done to best serve women Veterans.
Kayla M. Williams is the director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans.