Don’t Call Me ‘Mister': Report Says VA Needs Cultural Change in Women’s Care

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By Annette M. Boyle

WASHINGTON — Female veterans experience more physical and mental health issues than male veterans, yet are 30% less likely to enroll in VA services than men. Part of the problem, according to a recently released report, is that the needs of women veterans differ substantially from those of their male counterparts and, historically, the VA has not offered gender-responsive services to meet those needs.

The recently released Department of Veterans Affairs draft report, “Strategies for Serving our Women Veterans,” notes that improving care for women veterans has become a high priority for the VA as a consequence of the sharp rise in the number of women eligible for and accessing services over the last 10 years.

“The number of women veterans using VHA has more than doubled in the past decade, from nearly 160,000 in FY 2000 to more than 337,000 in FY 2011. We have a strong commitment to ensuring women veterans receive equitable, high-quality, comprehensive healthcare,” said Sally Haskell, MD, acting director of Comprehensive Women’s Health for the Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group.

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Women make up 15% of all the nation’s active-duty forces and 18% of guard and reservists. Consequently, VA projections show the number of women veterans continuing to increase, rising from 1.8 million in 2011 to 2 million by the end of the decade. By 2020, women will account for nearly 11% of the total veteran population, up from 8% today. 

Recognizing that female veterans have a different health profile than male veterans, the draft report proposes increasing “capacity to provide consistent and coordinated access to comprehensive services and benefits that meet the unique needs of women veterans” and addressing gaps “in personal privacy, dignity, security and respect that impact the overall women veterans’ experience in VA.”

Military Sexual Trauma

As indicated by comments on the draft report posted on official websites, www.vawomenvetstratplan.uservoice.com and www.regulations.gov, these changes cannot come soon enough for the one in five women veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST). For many of these women, the lack of privacy common in VHA facilities creates tremendous anxiety. As one posted, “women need simple courtesies at the VA, such as being able to sit in a private waiting area so they do not have to be subjected to the intrusive glares and stares that male veterans sometimes inflict on them. MST victims are triggered very easily, and they need a safe and dignified place to seek treatment.”

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