Lawmakers introduce bill to expand VA services for female veterans

by Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON – A few years after Army Reserve veteran Kate Hoit returned home from a yearlong deployment to Iraq in 2005, she sought medical treatment at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, where she was made to feel like she didn’t quite belong.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called ‘Mr. Hoit’ or [was] stopped while navigating my way through VA hospital halls,” Hoit said. “For the record, I’m not lost. I have an appointment. I – we – belong here, too.”

Hoit was one of several women veterans who stood outside the Capitol on Tuesday alongside members of Congress as they introduced plans to expand government services for women who have served in the military. The women explained feelings of not being acknowledged as veterans in or outside of the VA and, in some cases, are perceived as “second-class veterans,” as Iraq War veteran Allison Jaslow described it.

The lawmakers outlined proposed reforms under the new Deborah Sampson Act, which is named for a woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In part, the law would require every VA facility to maintain one primary care provider on staff who specializes in women’s health. It also calls for $20 million to be spent on retrofitting VA medical centers to provide more privacy for women veterans who are treated there.

The Government Accountability Office reported in December that women veterans face a lack of access to gynecological care at VA facilities and through the VA’s network of community-care providers. The GAO found 27 percent of VA facilities did not have an onsite gynecologist, and they reported cases of maternity care being “significantly delayed.”

Many facilities did not have privacy curtains in exam rooms, which is a violation of VA policies governing the care of women veterans, the report reads.

The report, signed by GAO Health Care Director Randall Williamson, states: “[T]he privacy, safety and dignity of women veterans may not be guaranteed when they receive care at VA facilities.”

“Trust me when I tell you, a curtain and a lock on a door during an exam means the difference in a woman ever coming back to the VA for services,” Hoit said.

She said she’s seen improvements in the last decade, and sees more women veterans in waiting rooms, as well as more female health care providers.

But, Hoit said, there are still barriers.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., sponsored the House and Senate bills. The lawmakers agreed Tuesday that legislation was past due and necessary to address the needs of a growing number of women veterans. According to the latest VA data, women accounted for more than 2 million of the roughly 21.3 million veterans nationwide.

Tester and Boozman, both members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said they wanted to set up a hearing on the bill quickly. If the Senate is not able to pass the Deborah Sampson Act as a stand-alone bill, they will try to attach it to another piece of veterans’ legislation, Tester said.

“If I have anything to do with it, and if Tester has anything to do with it, this will be one of our first orders of business in the near future,” Boozman said.

The legislation would authorize an additional $20 million to Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a VA program that provides grants to nonprofits nationwide who help low-income veteran families. The bill also boosts legal support for women veterans and requires the VA to report on the availability of women’s prosthetics.

In a move that would be a show of support for women veterans, advocates said, the legislation also asks the VA change its motto.

Since 1959, the motto has been a quote from former President Abraham Lincoln: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Plaques inscribed with the quote flank the entrance to VA headquarters in Washington and are located in many VA facilities.

“That not only alienates women across the country, it’s something that’s a barrier to them when they walk in the door and see that,” Jaslow said.

Jaslow is chief of staff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. She and other members of IAVA are in Washington this week to push their legislative agenda, which focuses mostly on improving government services for women veterans.

They’re also asking for the VA to institute child care at VA facilities, ensure access to fertility treatments and expand job and homeless services for women veterans, among other things. The group will present its agenda to a joint session of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees Wednesday morning.