Women are the fastest-growing group of veterans, but have long faced barriers when seeking healthcare access at VA medical centers.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the Deborah Sampson Act, comprehensive legislation that seeks to improve medical care for women veterans.
The Deborah Sampson Act incorporated over a dozen separate bills focused on female veterans’ medical care. Two of those bills came from Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) and Max Rose (D-NY), who have both prioritized efforts to modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and tailor it to address the needs of women veterans.
Brindisi, a leader on veterans’ issues and a member of the House’s Women Veterans Task Force, didn’t mince words about the importance of helping female veterans.
“They’re facing all kinds of issues like homelessness and unemployment, and in many cases, they go without needed healthcare. That’s why we need to focus on legislation to make sure they have all the benefits available to them,” Brindisi said.
Brindisi believes his legislation could help women better access some of those benefits. Brindisi’s bill would require the Veterans Affairs Women Veterans Call Center to include a text messaging service and also create a centralized, online page for women to access Veterans’ benefits, resources, and gender-specific information.
“The webpage that would be created would include locations of medical centers, community-based outpatient clinics, and contact information for women’s health coordinators,” Brindisi said.
No such website exists currently. A text messaging hotline is already in operation, but the bill would codify it into law as a requirement.
“We have to make sure services that women veterans needs are available at the VA. In many cases, historically, the VA has not been responsive to the needs of women veterans and the particular care they require,” Brindisi said.
Brindisi cited some VA medical centers’ failure to provide OBGYN services and mammograms as examples of how the agency has fallen short in the past.
The congressman was motivated to address the issue by stories he heard in his district.
“I have a veterans advisory group made up of veterans in the district who help inform me of challenges that they see within the VA system,” Brindisi said. “We have women veterans on that group who have discussed in detail some of the challenges they have faced and how in many cases, have not felt welcome at the VA.”
Rose, a veteran and like Brindisi, a member of the Women Veterans Task Force, focused on improving day-to-day care at the VA with his legislation.
Rose’s Breaking Barriers for Women Veterans Act would appropriate $20 million for the VA to retrofit existing medical facilities to support the provision of care to women veterans. The bill would also require the VA to ensure all of its medical facilities have at least one full-time or part-time women’s health provider.
Rose’s bill would also appropriate $1 million every fiscal year for the Women Veterans Health Care Mini-Residency Program, a program to ensure VA’s women’s health providers have experience in conducting breast and pelvic exams, while also ensuring that community network providers receive the appropriate training.
Women currently make up approximately 10% of all veterans, 15% of all active duty military, and nearly one-in-five members of the National Guard and Reserve, but they only make up 6% of VA healthcare users, according to Rose.
“With the number of women veterans skyrocketing, it’s ridiculous and downright unacceptable that our VA facilities don’t have the capability to properly give women the treatment they require,” Rose said in a statement on Wednesday, after the passage of the Deborah Sampson Act. “I am proud to pass this important legislation to make sure VA facilities across the country can provide women with the services they need.”
The Deborah Sampson Act will now go to the Republican-controlled Senate, which has become notorious for its refusal to take up legislation passed by the House this year.
Regardless of what happens in the Senate, Brindisi is optimistic that progress is on the horizon when it comes to addressing the issues facing female veterans.
“I think the VA doing more to try and address the needs of women veterans and our legislation will be a step in the right direction,” he said.
The need for progress will become all the more important as the ranks of female veterans grow in the coming decades. By 2040, the VA expects women to make up 18% of the veteran population.