As Hurricane Harvey was coming up the Gulf Coast and threatening the 2017 National Women Veterans Summit, 20 women Veterans gathered in small groups to discuss their experiences with transition from military to civilian life and their knowledge and perceptions of VA benefits, particularly health care. From their stories, we learned that many were unaware of the health care benefits VA offers. They stated all Veterans need help moving from military to VA health care and suggested the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) would benefit from a session specifically dedicated to VA women’s health services.
Besides transition recommendations, the women Veterans discussed challenges with VA health care. They shared difficulties being recognized as Veterans and encountering assumptions they were spouses or dependents. Even when their Veteran status was acknowledged, participants discussed having experienced capacity issues at VHA—not enough female doctors, no women-only support groups and a lack of resources appropriate for women such as women’s sizes in walking casts etc. One participant described her experience this way:
“I go to the VA for my mental health and it took me years to do that because the first time I went, I went through the usual, ‘Are you here because your husband’s a Veteran?’ ‘No, I’m a Veteran.’ So once we finally got past all that then I’m talking to somebody who is not a Veteran, who doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t understand the language, has NO CLUE what I’ve been through and then they say, ‘Well, maybe you’ll be better with a group.’ ‘Ok.’ And [then] I’m the only woman in the group.”
Listening to women Veterans’ experiences was the first step toward designing and implementing tailored solutions. Using what we’ve learned in these focus groups, VHA is piloting an improved Transition Assistance Program for women in partnership with the Air Force at five bases in 2018. In this pilot program, transitioning women will receive a one-day session to discuss in detail the physical and mental health services available to them after they transition. The addition to the program is designed to take some confusion out of the process of enrolling in VA health care. If successful, it will be rolled out to other branches and sites as well.
“What I know about VA health care is that it works for a lot of people , but it requires us opening up,” said another focus group participant. “It hurts to relive things but we need to educate providers so they understand our story, at least they hear our story. They can hear the pain and they know they can develop a plan based on your true stories, our true stories.”
The focus group feedback provided a valuable supplement to the survey VHA conducted on barriers women Veterans face to engaging with VHA services. In addition to the enhanced Transition Assistance Program, VA is also working to address other identified concerns by improving the environment of care, hiring and training additional Designated Women’s Health Providers, and finding other ways to engage women Veterans in VHA care.
We are grateful to these focus group participants and we will continue to seek more opportunities for women Veterans to discuss their experiences so we can develop and enhance women-centered programming in both the Transition Assistance Program and the VA health care system. To learn more about VA services and resources for women Veterans, call the Women Veterans Call Center at 855-VA-WOMEN.