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GAO: VA Failing to Serve Our Women Warriors
Posted by Paul Rieckhoff on July 17

If you blinked, you could’ve missed it. With the media’s obsession over Michael Jackson’s death and Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings plastered across cable news shows, an important story might have skipped your radar.

IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff Discusses the GAO Report on MSNBC

This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released a stunning new report detailing significant barriers that many female veterans face in accessing healthcare at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Not just for policy wonks, this report should be required reading for every American. Some of the critical findings include:

  • Privacy standards for women veterans at VA facilities aren’t being met.  The GAO found women’s exam room tables that faced doors instead of walls, and instances where women patients had to walk through waiting rooms to use the restrooms, as opposed to next to the exam room as required by VA policy. Some hospitals under review also did not guarantee access to private and secure bathing areas or visual and auditory privacy at check-in.
  • Comprehensive primary care is not available for women veterans at all hospitals and clinics. Despite its commitment 8 months ago, the VA has still not establish a deadline for facilities to meet its requirement of complete primary care and basic gender-specific services available to all women veterans by one provider at one site.  Some VA officials were even unclear on the steps needed to implement this new plan. The availability of services for women veterans continues to vary by hospital and clinic.
  • The VA still has shortages of qualified women’s health and mental health care providers. The VA’s ability to provide consistent and timely care to female vets is also being compromised by difficulties hiring providers that specialize in women’s health and mental health. For the female veterans coming home from war everyday and those suffering from mental health injuries or who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma, these shortages could not come at a worse time.

But the GAO isn’t the only one voicing concern.  We recently asked female vets to share their experiences at the VA. And their responses were alarming: 

I tried several times to use the mental health services.  I was told that women don't go to combat so we shouldn't need counseling.”—Female Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran

The VA hospitals are used to dealing with male Vietnam, Korea and WWII vets -- the quality of care for a female at a VA hospital is very low.”—Female Iraq Veteran

The [local] VA is supposed to have 4 women's doctors, but there is only 1 full-time doc and 1 semi-retired (her knowledge is outdated and she’s made serious mistakes on basic women's health problems that were already in my military medical record). With all the women veterans, this is ridiculous…Also I get annoyed because everyone calls you “Mr.” until they realize you’re female, they assume all vets are guys.”—Female Iraq Veteran

This is absolutely unacceptable. The VA must ensure that women veterans receive the care they deserve. With more women serving in combat than ever before, action should have happened yesterday. 

Thankfully, some advocates in Congress aren’t waiting. A bipartisan group of lawmakers lead by Senator Patty Murray and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin are championing legislation to improve VA services for women veterans. “The Women Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act” (S.597/H.R.1211) would help assess, expand, and improve VA care for women veterans, especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the female veteran population growing daily, it will also equip the VA with the tools necessary to plan long-term for this historic growth. And it’s just steps away from the President’s signature.

Like their male peers, women veterans have shown incredible dedication and courage in defending their country. It’s about time they get the same recognition and support.

P.S. Next month, IAVA is releasing a groundbreaking Issue Report on women in the military, based on extensive research and the experiences of female IAVA Member Veterans. Want to be the first to hear about it? Sign up for mobile updates by texting REPORT to 69866. We’ll send you a text message as soon as the report launches, so you can be among the first to read it.

Paul Rieckhoff is the Founder and Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and the author of Chasing Ghosts.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

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