Dr. Betty Moseley-Brown, VA’s associate director of the Center for Women Veterans, participated in Washington Conference's women veterans panel discussion about challenges facing women veterans at VA medical centers. (Photo by Noel St. John)

Changing VA culture

There are currently more than 22 million United States veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs predicts that by 2020, nearly 11 percent of the veterans they serve will be women, said Dr. Betty Moseley-Brown, VA’s associate director of the Center for Women Veterans during The American Legion’s 53rd annual Washington Conference. Moseley-Brown was one of four experts who participated in the women veterans panel discussion about challenges facing women veterans at VA medical centers, especially cultural challenges.

The panel’s experts also included Cathy Wiblemo, director of the House Subcommittee on Health; R. Michael Suter, American Legion System Worth Saving Task Force member and vice chairman of national Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission; and Roscoe G. Butler, American Legion national field service representative.

Culture challenges facing women veterans is an issue that VA is concerned about, such as how its employees treat women veterans when they come in for benefits and services.

To help women know that the VA is a place for them to receive quality care, it has created a few public service announcements on its website titled “The Right Place.” One features a group of culturally diverse women veterans standing in line at a VA help desk, and one woman asks, “I hear I can get good care here. Am I in the right place?” The VA staff member replies, “Yes, we are ready and you’re in the right place.” Another PSA features a woman in a VA waiting room who says, “Please, don’t call me Mr.”

During American Legion System Worth Saving site visits, Suter learns that VA has to change its culture. “When women veterans go into these clinics, they are looked upon as spouses,” Suter said. “A lot of our women veterans either don’t know they’re a veteran or don’t want to admit it for some reason. The question now being asked in a few VA facilities that I have been to is not ‘Are you a veteran?’ but ‘Have you served in the military?’ That is part of that cultural change we need to get into to make sure that women veterans are at home in the VA medical center as the men are.”

Additional challenges for women veterans that were discussed included privacy issues with exam and waiting rooms, gender-specific care, mental health care and homelessness.

Moseley-Brown said VA is doing a lot to improve the physical structure of its medical centers, but when research is conducted that asks women veterans how they want the facilities to be set up, “33 percent of them say they want to be in the waiting room with those same comrades that they served with. There’s another 33 percent that prefer to have a separate waiting room, but then there’s another 33 percent that are ready to take whatever the facility has. Unfortunately, you can’t have it all three ways at a facility, so facility directors under VA leadership are really taking a look to find out what their veterans want in their area.”

The Legion’s System Worth Saving site visits gather information on what benefits each medical center provides to women veterans, the quality of care being provided and the challenges women veterans face. From his experience with VA site visits, Butler encourages medical centers to think creatively about solving problems they encounter when trying to meet women veterans’ needs.

“If you can’t build upward and you can’t build outward, you have to have facility management coming up with innovative ideas with their staff,” Butler said. He provided a few low-cost innovative ideas to meet the needs of women veterans, such as pajamas instead of robes, hair brushes, nail files, etc.

“You can build VA facilities, but if we don’t know how to treat our veterans when they come in the door, it’s all for not,” Moseley-Brown said. “We need to help our VA staff remember that anyone who comes through the doors should receive the best care anywhere.”