June 23, 2014 in Nation/World

VA falls short on care for female veterans

Garance Burke Associated Press
 

SAN FRANCISCO – Already pilloried for long wait times for medical appointments, the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs has fallen short of another commitment: to attend to the needs of the rising ranks of female veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them of child-bearing age.

Even the head of the VA’s office of women’s health acknowledges that persistent shortcomings remain in caring for the 390,000 female vets seen last year at its hospitals and clinics – despite an investment of more than $1.3 billion since 2008, including the training of hundreds of medical professionals in the fundamentals of treating the female body.

According to an Associated Press review of VA documents, inspector general reports and interviews:

• Nationwide, nearly one in four VA hospitals does not have a full-time gynecologist on staff. And about 140 of the 920 community-based clinics serving veterans in rural areas do not have a designated women’s health provider, despite the goal that every clinic would have one.

• When community-based clinics refer veterans to a nearby university or other private medical facility to be screened for breast cancer, more than half the time their mammogram results are not provided to patients within two weeks as is required under VA policy.

• Female veterans have been placed on the VA’s Electronic Wait List, which consists of all new patients for whom appointments cannot be scheduled in 90 days or less, at a higher rate than male veterans.

• According to a VA presentation last year, female veterans of child-bearing age were far more likely to be given medications that can cause birth defects than were women being treated through a private HMO.

“Are there problems? Yes,” said Dr. Patricia Hayes, the VA’s chief consultant for women’s health in an AP interview. “The good news for our health care system is that as the number of women increases dramatically, we are going to continue to be able to adjust to these circumstances quickly.”

The 5.3 million male veterans who used the VA system in fiscal year 2013 far outnumbered female patients, but the number of women receiving care at VA has more than doubled since 2000. The tens of thousands of predominantly young, female veterans returning home has dramatically changed the VA’s patient load, and the system has yet to fully catch up, according to a 2013 VA report.

Hayes said the VA seeks to place a trained, designated women’s provider in every facility and expects to install a “one-stop” health care model that allows women to go to one provider for a range of services, including annual physicals, mental health services, gynecological care and mammograms. Until that happens, however, some VA clinics have limited gender-specific health treatments available for women.

Army Sgt. Ashley Morris, who worked as an operating room technician for six months in 2008-2009 at a military hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone that treated soldiers hit by suicide bombs or wounded in firefights, said that promised transformation is badly needed. She returned suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and spent a month hospitalized in a psychiatric facility in Pueblo, Colorado.

“As a young female coming home from Iraq, they don’t have the care that we need at the local clinic,” said Morris, 26, now back home in Albertville, Alabama. “If it’s anything over psych medications, I have to go to Birmingham.”

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