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Female veterans seek health care to match their presence in the military

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux | The Washington Post

As the number of female veterans continues to increase, a veterans service organization is asking the federal government to conduct a study that would evaluate the Department of Veterans Affairs' ability to meet the growing needs of female veterans and study their levels of privacy and security when they do seek treatment.

That request by Disabled American Veterans was made on Tuesday at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on "Fulfilling the Promise to Women Veterans."

The last government study of health services for female former troops was done in 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO report found that many female veterans thought that the culture wasn't welcoming at VA and that transition programs developed to assist veterans had not been tailored to meet the needs of female veterans.

For instance, female veterans are two to three times as likely to be homeless as any other group in the U.S. adult population, according to VA studies. They may need specific services that will allow their children to stay in a shelter with them. And sometimes the veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of sexual assault while serving -- known as military sexual trauma -- and haven't been able to find help.

VA has embarked on a public service campaign, with posters hanging in every hospital and clinic and bearing slogans such as "Not every GI is a Joe" and "She wore these," with a photo of combat boots. The agency says it has made progress in helping women feel more welcome, including opening several model Women's Health Centers like the one in Washington, which has a separate entrance, calming music and even a play table with books for children. Female veterans have also lobbied for child care.

Nearly 2.3 million women are U.S. veterans. VA says the number of female veterans using VA's health service increased by 80 percent from 2003 to 2012. More than 635,000 female veterans are enrolled in the health care system. And the number of female patients under 35 has increased by 120 percent from 2003 to 2013.

While some VA hospitals have separate Women's Health Centers, there are still 35 VA medical centers with no gynecologist on staff.

"We recognize that some VA health care facilities serve only a small number of women, or have experienced difficulty in recruiting or retaining specialty providers in certain locations; however, these services are essential to providing comprehensive health care," Joy Ilem, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, testified at the hearing. "We urge the department to reallocate the necessary resources to ensure women veterans gain access to a full continuum of gender-specific, age-appropriate, high-quality health care at all VA facilities."

Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, has taken the lead in the Senate by introducing the bipartisan Women Veterans Access to Quality Care Act. Heller's legislation, sponsored with Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat), would boost services and oversight and include the GAO study.

Also testifying at the hearing was Christina Mouradjian, a U.S. Army veteran who told the committee that during a recent trip to a VA facility, the doctors pulled back the curtain and were surprised to see a woman.

"You feel like you are not taken seriously," she said.

Women Veterans