A landmark report on health care for female veterans finds that one of the biggest hurdles is simply getting women to think of themselves as veterans.
Women who served in the military often don’t identify as veterans and have no idea what benefits might be available or how to get them, says a report released Tuesday by the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.
And when women do try to get treatment, Veterans Affairs Department facilities are not always inviting; staff and male veterans may make them feel uncomfortable, the report says.
The 2.4-million member Legion suggests VA could develop a customized program aimed at informing women of their eligibility, potentially by expanding transition training for separating service members, and could use female VA employees to spread the word about benefits and help connect female veterans to their closest facility.
With women now making up about 15 percent of the active force, the report recommends a continued expansion of women’s health care programs, especially residential mental health. About 50 percent of current residential mental health programs have separate spaces for women, but wait times can be long, the report says.
Based on visits to 15 of VA’s 152 medical centers, the report says many improvements have been made to women’s health care in the last decade, but there are still shortages of specialists; facilities that don’t always provide privacy, including unisex bathrooms; and a lack of female doctors.
For example, female veterans in Tuscaloosa, Ala., complained that the facility lost its only female chaplain in January, and they didn’t feel comfortable discussing their health care problems with the male chaplain who replaced her. They also said the receptionist at the women’s clinic was rude and the hospital operator often didn’t answer the phone at all.
In St. Cloud, Minn., the VA hospital is 87 years old and has areas that do not meet women’s privacy needs. “As a result of age, many of the buildings need significant renovation and replacement,” the report says.
In North Chicago, Legion representatives said there is no women-specific residential mental health program for post-traumatic stress or military sexual trauma, and the women’s clinic did not offer early morning, late afternoon or weekend appointments.
Only a few facilities offer child care, and the child care centers operating under a pilot program could soon be forced to close because the three-year test is scheduled to end in October.
The report calls for VA to step up both the quality and availability of care in order to attract more female vets.
Timely mammogram reports were singled out as one area where VA could improve. VA commonly contracts with community providers for mammograms, with reports required in three to five business days if there is a suggestion of malignancy and 30 business days if nothing suspicious was found.
“The American Legion views this as a minimum standard,” the report says. “VA should look into establishing a gold standard which exceeds the minimum, and strive to provide same-day results for malignant or highly suggestive mammograms.”
VA could take other steps to appear less male-centric, the report notes. For example, health care program literature for the Tampa, Fla., veterans hospital, includes no images of women, “which ultimately does not show VA is friendly toward women,” the report says.