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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | VA Facing Challenges in Treating Female Military Veterans, Officials Say

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | VA Facing Challenges in Treating Female Military Veterans, Officials Say
[June 19, 2008]

The Department of Veterans Affairs is better prepared to treat female military service members but faces "continual challenges" as more women seek treatment such as reproductive health and mental health services, VA officials recently said, McClatchy/Chicago Tribune reports. In 2007, VA facilities treated more than 255,000 female veterans. The number is expected to double within five years, according to McClatchy/Tribune.

According to McClatchy/Tribune, 41% of the women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought health care at least once at a VA facility, compared with only 14% of older female veterans and 22% of male veterans. Officials say that female veterans who come to VA usually seek birth control, infertility advice, family planning advice, coverage for their infants and child care for when they are being treated.

In addition, "[c]oncern is mounting" over the number of female veterans diagnosed with "military sexual trauma," which includes rape, sexual assault and harassment, McClatchy/Tribune reports. VA officials said that nearly one in five female veterans seeking care has been diagnosed with military sexual trauma; however, some believe the figure could be almost one in three.

Patricia Hayes, VA's national director of women's health care issues, said VA has "geared up and are gearing up," but "there are places that may have gaps." VA officials "aren't ready" to serve female veterans, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, adding, "Absent a proactive, concerted effort, and knowing their limited resources ... this might get lost." Murray said, "It's a hard issue, and pouring a huge light on this is a risk, as some will say women just shouldn't be in the military." She added, "But as more women transition home from the physical and mental wounds of war and step back into lives as mothers, wives and citizens, the VA must be there for them."

Murray has introduced legislation (SB 2799) that would require VA to study how serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has affected the physical, mental and reproductive health of women, as well as how it is dealing with those problems. The legislation also would require VA facilities to care for newborn children of female veterans who are receiving maternity care and would require increased training for VA personnel dealing with military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in women (Blumenthal, McClatchy/Chicago Tribune, 6/18).