WASHINGTON—Currently, women make up 10% of U.S. veterans, and that percentage grows higher with each new generation of veterans.
Yet, there has historically been in enrollment between men and women in VA services, and it has become more apparent as the number of women veterans grows. Much of that has to do with the way VA is perceived by women and the outreach, or lack of it, that has occurred in the past.
“If you look at the market penetration rate, it’s higher in male veterans than female veterans,” explained Nancy Maher, PhD, program manager of VA’s Women’s Health Transition Training (WWHT) Program. “[Research has found] that a lot of women veterans don’t identify as veterans and that they didn’t really think that VA was a place where women could get a high quality of care. They thought of it as a place where older men got their care. There are misperceptions about eligibility and misperceptions about VA as a hospital system that could care for women.”
That misperception is something that Maher is hoping to combat with the WWHT, a program that she helped develop within VA’s Women Health Services Office.
The development of the WWHT began two years ago with a report that showed suicide rates among women veterans was nearly three times higher than their male counterparts. It also showed that women had much poorer outcomes in the areas of musculoskeletal injuries, chronic pain and depression. The period of time immediately following discharge was identified as being a particularly high-risk time for suicide.
“The whole idea started with a policy meeting that VA’s Women’s Health Services put together with our counterparts in DoD, bringing all the experts in women’s health together from across the services,” Maher said. “We started brainstorming ideas that we could do together that would address some of these concerns.”
It’s long been recognized that the transition experience can be a difficult one for a servicemember, and that the sheer amount of information given as part of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), including information about VA benefits, can be overwhelming.
“It’s a jam-packed training. It’s so much information,” Maher declared. “We went to a TAP session at a local Army base and sat through the VA portion. Of course they talk about the health benefits, but they spent maybe five minutes on women’s health.”
Maher and her colleagues felt that those five minutes were being lost in the deluge and so created WHTT as a way to provide more comprehensive information about VA to transitioning women servicemembers.
A typical WHTT class includes between 20-25 women who are about to transition out of the military and back into civilian life. During the session, a woman veteran gives detailed information on what benefits are available and what VA can provide for women in terms of healthcare.
“We talk about the VA system as a whole. It’s very complex, but we try to break that all down and make it more navigable and understandable,” Maher explained. “Then we get into a very detailed discussion of all the women’s health services that are available. Ninety-nine percent of our participants had no idea what the VA offers and that it is very high-quality care. There are a lot of misperceptions about the VA in the media. We wanted to correct that.”
The class dives into the specifics of eligibility and how to enroll, as well as what transition resources are available. In locations where it’s possible, the WHTT class arranges field trips to the nearest VA facility to tour that facility’s women’s health services.
Perhaps most importantly, the class gives women the chance to ask questions in a way they might not have the opportunity to in the more rushed TAP environment.
“It’s a great place for women to be open and share and ask very personal questions. They feel comfortable doing that, especially around mental healthcare issues,” Maher said. “It’s women-only and taught by a woman veteran that uses VA healthcare.”
Though it was piloted through the Air Force in 2017, the WHTT Program has included servicemembers from all of the services since its inception and has since been rolled out throughout DoD. Outcome data from the pilot project found that women who went through the program were 85% more likely to enroll in VA compared to a control group.”
While the program has had to transition during the pandemic to purely online courses, it had a head start.
“We developed a virtual classroom version during the pilot project,” Maher said. “We were interested in seeing if the women had the same level of engagement. Do they like it just as well? Are they learning as much? And we’ve really found no difference.”
While the field trips to VA facilities have needed to be cut, the WHTT Program is working to create a virtual experience that allows participants to tour different VA women’s healthcare centers.
As for how the WHTT will grow in the future, Maher said that’s informed in part by the participants themselves.
“We always get participant feedback,” she explained. “We look at what they enjoyed and what they want to hear more of. That’s helping the program evolve. While we certainly update our curriculum every year as policy changes and new programs come about, we rely on these women to guide us.”
Women can register for a WHTT class and learn more about what the program has to offer at www.va.gov/womenvet/whtt .