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Women Veterans Need Good VA Health Care, Not a Voucher

May 21, 2015 - 10:48, Posted by admin

By Ashleigh Byrnes

I am a veteran who has utilized the VA health care system on more than one occasion, and I am deeply troubled by what has rather quickly become a trending topic—privatizing Women VeteransVA health care. Simply giving vouchers to veterans so they can go purchase health care in the private sector will be bad for veterans. And as a woman veteran, I am convinced it will be particularly bad for me and other women who served.

The VA has been heavily criticized over the past year, much of it a result of its own doing. But nearly all of the problems revolve around access—excessive wait times, for example—and less about quality of care. Surveys reveal that VA health care regularly meets and exceeds the quality of the private health care system. VA provides specialized veteran-specific care. And it ensures coordinated, holistic care so that, for example, a Vietnam veteran who is a double-amputee experiencing pain related to diabetic nerve damage is treated by health professionals knowledgeable about amputation care, the physical and emotional effects of traumatic injury, and diabetes.

The need for such specialized veteran-specific care is at least as acute among women veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, for example, are often amplified in women during and after pregnancy. Many of the women veterans I talk to report that treatment in the private sector cannot meet their needs. One Marine told me a story of going to a private physician for a checkup. Completely unaware of—or insensitive to—this woman’s prior history of military sexual trauma (MST), this male doctor hastily and unceremoniously lifted her shirt to perform an exam. To her, this was not just jarringly inappropriate, it felt violating.

A voucher will not lead the veteran in need of amputation care to knowledgeable physicians, or the woman survivor of MST to sensitive doctors. That care is found at the VA. Our focus needs to be on strengthening VA health care and ensuring ready access to care. And for women veterans, that means speeding up changes already underway at VA health care facilities to make sure they are ready for the ever-increasing numbers of women veterans—up to 11 percent of all veterans by 2020.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald has rightly called for a culture change at the VA. Departments and Chapters of the organization I work for, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) report that this is starting to take hold in many areas of the country, including and especially for women. The patient advocate network throughout the VA health care system is steadily tuning into the needs of women veterans. And women veterans are now volunteering as “Sister-Assisters,” de-facto battle-buddies to help each other navigate VA health care. Women veterans equipped with just a voucher will not find this sisterhood in the private sector and will not have access to the multitude of benefits that are being adapted for women veterans.

This is not to suggest that the VA is the perfect place for women veterans. There is still a lot of work to be done and the VA needs to pick up the pace. Indeed, DAV recently testified before the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees, urging that Congress set a Memorial Day, 2016 deadline for certain actions by the VA. They include a requirement that every medical center have a full- or part-time gynecologist on staff and IT systems be updated to fully integrate issues specific to women’s health into clinical decision support systems. But based on my experience and that of women veterans I have spoken to, the specialization that comes from working exclusively with veterans, coupled with the changes that VA has made to date, makes the VA a far better place for women veterans to get care than much of the private sector.

One former sailor told me she feels “veterans fare better among their own kind.” I know that’s how I felt, especially during my difficult transition home from Afghanistan. The VA helped me. It’s helping my sisters. Privatization and vouchers may sound like thoughtful solutions to the challenges that face the VA. But in reality, it’s a risky proposition that could result in even greater inconsistency of care for the growing number of women. The correct answer is to take steps now to make high-quality VA health care available to all veterans who need it, including women.