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 ambitious clinical and research initiatives and an investment of more than $1.3 billion since 2008 that trained hundreds of medical professionals in the fundamentals of treating the female body.
Here are five things to know about health care for female veterans within the VA system:
DEARTH OF GYNECOLOGISTS: Nearly one in four VA hospitals nationwide does not have a fulltime gynecologist on staff.
RURAL CLINICS STILL CATCHING UP: About 140 of the 920 community-based clinics serving veterans in rural areas do not have a designated women’s health provider.
MAMMOGRAM RESULTS PROBLEMATIC: When community-based clinics refer veterans to outside facilities to be screened for breast cancer, more than half the time their mammogram results are not provided to patients within the required two weeks.
WHAT VA PATIENTS SHOULD GET: All enrolled veterans can use what the VA describes as its “comprehensive medical benefits package,” though certain benefits may vary by individual and ailment, just like for medical care outside the VA system. The VA typically covers all women’s gender-specific medical needs, aside from abortions and in-vitro fertilization.
CHANGING PATIENT DEMOGRAPHICS: 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 adapt.