The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has launched a Women Veterans Health Transformation Initiative that has already produced marked improvements in health-care quality for women veterans, according to Dr. Sally Haskell, M.D., who directs VA's women's health services.
Haskell spoke about the initiative during The American Legion's Women Veterans Panel on Aug. 25 in Indianapolis. Joining her on the panel were Roxanne Rusch, R.N., of the Veterans Health Administration and Norma Gray Jones, Ph.D., a military social worker and clinical associate professor at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Women now make up 15 percent of active-duty forces and 18 percent of reserve and National Guard components. As of 2011, 337,000 women veterans are enrolled in VA, including 55 percent of women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"As we've heard, the VA wasn't really prepared for the rapid growth of the female veteran population, and we've had to make some rapid changes," Haskell said. "We really want to transform the health-care delivery for women veterans, and increase the understanding of the effects of military service on women veterans' lives."
VA has taken a close look at gender disparities in its system, Haskell said. "It turns out, not only in the VA but also in the private sector, there are gender disparities in care. If you compare men to women across all different types of health-care systems, men (do) slightly better."
VA has been able to virtually eliminate those gender disparities, Haskell said, "not completely, but pretty close. We're within a tiny margin, so we're very proud of that."
VA survey results from FY 2010-2011 show the women's health initiative has improved the quality of screening for cervical and breast cancer to levels that exceed those in the private sector.
Other improvements include correcting bathroom and privacy deficiencies at VA facilities, improving emergency room care for women and educating providers with "mini-residencies" on women's health care.
Haskell said many health-care providers may have started at VA early in their careers, "and because of that, they haven't really been familiar with taking care of women." The mini-residencies "retrain our providers so they can become really proficient and up -to-date in women's health care. We've already trained over 1,500 women's health providers."
New policies are being developed for maternity care coordination, infertility issues and emergency contraception. VA now provides up to seven days of newborn care for the babies of women veterans.
"A lot of people don't realize that the VA actually provides maternity care. We do pay for full maternity care for eligible women veterans. They can choose where they want to get it, and then the VA pays for it," Haskell said.
In June 2011, VA established a Women Veterans Call Center to improve its outreach capabilities. A screening tool for homelessness vulnerability among women veterans is also being developed.
"We have a goal to try to reach all women veterans to tell them about services that are available," Haskell said. "We feel like we've made tremendous progress, and the progress has been unbelievably rapid in the last three or four years. We know that we're not there yet — we acknowledge that. And we totally appreciate the work of The American Legion and other veterans service organizations that advocate for women veterans because we know there's a lot to do."