WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is lagging when it comes to providing health care to women veterans, the agency’s director acknowledged Thursday under questioning at a House hearing.
“We are quite frankly playing catch-up,” acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson said. “The growth rate of women veterans coming under VA health care radically outstrips the overall number of veterans coming under VA care. We have not historically been well-positioned to provide that care.”
More women served in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any previous U.S. conflict and comprised more than 11 percent of those who deployed to those wars, according to the Department of Defense. Overall more than 2.5 million service members were sent overseas, and the VA acknowledges it has been overwhelmed and unable to provide timely care to those who have returned on top of an aging population of veterans from previous conflicts.
Gibson said the VA is training staff on women’s medicine and hiring additional health providers.
“I know what a big deal it is because every time we are able to cut a ribbon on a new women’s clinic in a medical center I always get invited,” Gibson said. “It’s a really big deal but we are playing catch-up.”
Gibson was pressed on women’s health by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., at a wide-ranging hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Congress is under pressure to complete action on a VA health reform bill before recessing at the end of next week through the month of August.
“Sometimes we look at this in the big picture and we forget there are certain veterans who are perhaps being overlooked,” Titus said, referring to sexual minorities as well as women.
The VA served 390,000 women veterans last year but an investigation published in June by the Associated Press showed one in four VA hospitals did not have a fulltime gynecologist on staff. It also showed 140 of the 920 community-based clinics in rural areas do not have a designated women’s health provider.
Women veterans also were more likely to be placed on waiting lists for VA appointments than men, and were more likely to be given medications that can cause birth defects than women treated outside the VA, the study found.
The VA Southern Nevada Medical Center in North Las Vegas has a part-time gynecologist, “and that matches our current workload,” said VA spokesman Richard Beam. “As the demand grows, we would add time accordingly.”
As for other medical workers handling women, Beam said the Southern Nevada system has two full time clinicians at the hospital and 11 others who provide care at satellite clinics in the valley.
In addition, faculty from the Gynecology Department of the University of Nevada School of Medicine will start working at the hospital in the fall, and OB/GYN residents will start a rotation in January 2015.
“We also just hired a female urologist that specializes in women’s care and expect her to be able to start treating our veterans in September,” Beam said. Women account for 8.4 percent of the veterans treated by the VA in Southern Nevada.
Titus also asked Gibson to support a bill she introduced that would ensure eligibility for VA benefits to the same-sex spouses of military veterans.
The bill was introduced in June 2013 after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act that limited the federal definition of “marriage” to that between a man and a woman. The VA subsequently said it would review benefit applications from same-sex couples on a case by case basis.
“Unless Congress acts those veterans and their families who live in states that don’t recognize their marriages will be denied access to earned benefit,” Titus said.
Gibson said he was not familiar with the bill.
“My own policy at the department has been to provide equal benefits to all veterans to the maximum extent permitted by the law,” he said.
Contact Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.