Senate committee examines barriers for women veterans receiving VA healthcare

WASHINGTON DC — More women are joining the U.S. military, and that means more women veterans are turning to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for healthcare services.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says women are the fastest-growing group served by VHA today. Since 2001, the number of women vets using VA services has more than tripled, with 625,000 enrolled last year.

But not all women veterans are able to access the care they need.

This week, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee heard about the barriers for women vets and efforts by the VA to better serve them.

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“It is our obligation to ensure all women veterans encounter barrier-free access to healthcare and benefits,” said Julie Howell, Associate Legislative Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), in her testimony.

Howell spoke with our Washington News Bureau about the challenges for women veterans living with a spinal-cord injury or disease when trying to access care.

“There’s a high level of complex need that they have,” said Howell.

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Howell pointed to barriers at the clinics.

“Narrow doorways. Limited family bathrooms,” said Howell. “Something like a family bathroom is going to make more sense and it’s going to be appropriate because then you have enough space for you and your caregiver who may be another gender.”

Senators shared stories from women veterans who have told them about challenges with limited resources, including not having enough clinics that provide mammograms or reproductive care.

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“One woman had to find a new doctor for her third pregnancy because her prior one was no longer willing to work with the VA,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).

“I heard from a veteran who was looking for care at American Lake VA, which was close to where she lived, but the women’s clinic was completely full,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The VA said it is prioritizing access to women’s care, including preventative care and mental health services.

“To address gender-specific health concerns, we’ve developed several primary healthcare policies, one of which includes assigning a woman to a trained woman’s health primary care provider, should she choose to have that,” said Dr. Erica Scavella, Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Services at the VHA. “As of September 2023, all healthcare systems have at least three primary care providers who are specializing in women’s health.”

Veterans warn there is still more work that needs to be done to make sure women vets aren’t being left behind.

“What we’re asking of VA is that they recognize that if you were to build a system for the neediest veteran in your care, it doesn’t take away from anybody else,” said Howell.

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