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VA steps up efforts to assist female veterans

VA addressing female veterans’ health care needs

The number of women using Veterans Affairs services has doubled in the past decade, and that increase is expected to continue into the next decade. /U.S. Army photo

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After years of haggling with the Department of Veterans Affairs, former Marine staff sergeant Kate Raggazino is finally seeing some changes.

After being discharged several years ago, she had to fight to get the VA to recognize her health care needs.

"They just weren't equipped, they weren't prepared for the amount of people that were coming home, let alone a female, you know, they just didn't know how to deal with it," she told KPBS in San Diego. "Women have specific needs that have to be met."

It looks like VA officials heard the call for help.

The number of women using Veterans Affairs services has doubled in the past decade, and that increase is expected to continue into the next decade. The VA is taking that message of internal culture-change to the public with a new video about the vital role women play in the military and the importance of providing female veterans with high quality health care.

VA's Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group recently completed a 60-second public service announcement that challenges viewers to rethink pre-conceived notions about women veterans. The video features images of women in service to the country.

"When these brave women complete their service and become veterans, we want them to know that VA is there to meet their health care needs," Dr. Patricia Hayes, chief consultant of the VA's Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group said in a release. "At the same time, we want the public to recognize the contributions of women veterans and the benefits they have earned through their service to the nation."

The VA will spend $241 million this year on gender-specific care - such as cervical cancer screenings and gynecology - for the VA's 300,000 female patients, Hayes said. The amount is up nearly $30 million from last year as more women seek care from the historically male-dominated VA, she added. More than half of the women using VA health care have a service-connected disability. These range from combat PTSD to missing limbs. The PSA gives a sampling of the service-connected disabilities women Veterans must cope with on a daily basis.

The PSA was developed for nationwide release from a new employee orientation video-available at www.womenshealth.va.gov - created as part of VA's ongoing efforts to change its culture to be more understanding and accommodating of women veterans and honor the important service they have given the country.

"VA's goal is to provide the highest quality care for every veteran, regardless of gender," Hayes said. "Part of this initiative has been educating staff so they understand and appreciate that it is their job to make sure women veterans receive the best care anywhere."

In addition to new employee orientation, the VA is spreading its culture-of-change message to current employees through posters, conferences and e-mail messaging. VA health care providers are all given the opportunity to participate in a ground-breaking mini-residency program in Women's Health for Veterans. The program has already educated more than 1,100 VA providers on the latest knowledge in gender-specific health care.

Programs tailored to the needs of mostly male veterans were not addressing female veterans' needs. Some group depression counseling sessions with groups of male veterans and a few females missed the mark for the women.

Women couldn't open up in sessions that include men because their psychological wounds are often connected to what is being called "Military Sexual Trauma;" that is, rape, assault or sexual harassment from fellow Servicemembers, according to VA officials.

Danielle Jackson served in Iraq in the first Desert Storm but she didn't come to the VA hospital for health care until recently, she told KPBS. Jackson said she suffered sexual abuse while she was deployed in the 1990s and, she says, pretty much every woman veteran she knows went through similar ordeals.

"The whole policy to me has changed, and now at least they are acknowledging the fact that it's a problem," Jackson said.

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