March 1, 2008 – Washington, DC – Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is expected to announce legislation next week aimed at increasing the focus on female veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Murray has spent many hearings questioning VA officials about female veterans with histories of sexual trauma, whether research has been done to determine their health needs and whether VA hospitals are so focused on men’s health issues that women get left behind.
Though VA officials say they are conducting a survey on women’s experiences at their facilities, as well as offering programs specifically for women, proponents of the proposed bill say it would target areas VA has not addressed. It follows a similar House bill proposed by Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla.
Murray’s bill will ask for:
* Assessment and treatment of women who have suffered sexual trauma in the military.
* More use of evidence-based treatment for women — particularly in areas such as post-traumatic stress disorder, where responses may be different or involve different issues than it does for men.
* A long-term study on gender-specific health issues of female veterans.
“One of the things we started to see early on is that there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Joy Ilem, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.
Ilem said she uses the Washington, D.C., VA hospital herself and called the care “top-notch.” But she’s worried that as more female veterans enter the VA system, it will be hard to “ramp up” to their needs if VA doesn’t figure out what those needs are early. Also, only 5 percent of the people who use VA’s health care system are women.
Ilem said more research must be done to look into female veterans’ physical and mental health issues, especially those associated with women returning from combat zones.
She said the legislation will call for a copy of the VA’s ongoing study of women’s issues; an outside, independent review of women’s programs; an Institute of Medicine study of female vets’ health issues; and a certification program for clinicians working with victims — male and female — of sexual trauma.
As many as 19 percent of female combat veterans say they have been sexually assaulted, which may put them at higher risk for PTSD.
Plenty of good, evidence-based treatments are available now for women, “but they don’t always make it out to the field,” Ilem said.
Female veterans also face different issues when they return home from combat, Ilem said. Often, they serve as primary caregivers to their children or are expected to fall back into the role of a wife without any time to readjust. For that reason, the legislation will call for women’s retreats for female veterans that could help them reconnect with their husbands and children, as well as learn about VA benefits.
And, as primary caregivers, it may be more difficult for them to make it to VA facilities for health care, so the legislation will call calls for childcare services.
It also asks that Women Veterans Coordinator at VA hospitals be full-time positions without additional duties.
“I think it will be very helpful if we can get this moving” in Congress, Ilem said.