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September/october 2008

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During the opening session of the VA’s 2008 National Summit on Women Veterans’ Issues, which was held June 20-22 in Washington, D.C., Under Secretary for Health Michael J. Kussman promised to make all Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Women Veterans Program Manager positions full-time, a goal that exceeds VVA’s Resolution WV-4-03. Kussman also promised that VHA would establish women veterans’ clinics at all VA Medical Centers, although no timetable was given. In addition, he has established a work group to ensure that every woman veteran has access to a primary-care provider who is competent in women’s health issues.
VVA participants at the conference, held once every four years, included Marsha Four, who chairs the VVA Women Veterans Committee; Sandy Miller; Connie Christensen; and Sara McVicker.

VA Secretary James Peake discussed the need for VA “to be more responsive.” While claiming significant progress in recent years, he also acknowledged that more needs to be done and announced the formation of a work group to focus on women’s needs in prosthetics and rehabilitation. The Women Veterans’ Health Program Office in March 2007 was elevated in organizational status to that of a Strategic Health Care Group, which puts it on a par with other major VHA offices. Patty Hayes, for many years the Women Veterans Program Manager at the Pittsburgh VAMC and the VISN 4 Women Veterans Coordinator, was appointed chief consultant.

Mark Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, said that because some offices are very small, VBA is unable to make all women veteran coordinator positions full-time. But he did commit to ensuring that the individuals in these positions receive training and have sufficient time to do their jobs. He also discussed working with veterans’ service organizations to provide training on women veterans’ issues.

Headstones are now available with inscriptions for those with service in the WAAC and WASP. Headstones for use in private cemeteries, William Truek said, are not being requested by women veterans in the same proportion as they are by male veterans. Recent legislation allows a VA marker to be placed at a grave that also has a private marker. The new law also authorizes the use of a veterans’ medallion, which can be attached to a private headstone. The medallion is being designed and should be available next year.

The number of women veterans using VA care has increased dramatically. Nearly 60 percent are post-Vietnam War veterans, and 56 percent of women using the VA are under 45. Although the need to provide care with privacy, dignity, and sensitivity is not a gender issue, women veterans have driven this message throughout the VA. Dr. Hayes discussed factors that may affect the health of newer women veterans, including erratic use of birth control pills; difficulty in obtaining gynecological care; self-imposed restrictions on fluid intake because of lack of private toilets; and breast pain from ill-fitting armor designed for men.

In contrast to the private sector, in which women receive more preventive care than men, the opposite is true in the VA. Although VA performance on standard preventive care items is better than that in the private sector, women score lower than men. VHA is investigating factors that may have an impact on this, including fragmented care.

Dr. Donna Washington said that the high prevalence of mental health issues among women veterans, combined with chronic physical health conditions, results in a complex patient population. Women are more likely than men to use VA and non-VA providers. Despite that, 55 percent of VA users say that receiving general and gender-specific health care from the same, consistent provider is very important.

The last VA survey of women veterans was done in 1984. A new study this year will identify current demographics, determine healthcare needs and barriers to VA health care for women veterans, and assess women veterans’ preferences regarding care.

Sara McVicker has been a VVA member since 1982. She received her B.S. in Nursing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her Master of Nursing from Emory University. She served in the Army Nurse Corps from 1968-71, including a tour in Vietnam at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku.



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