HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, May 19, 2008

VA and Women's Health Issues

McClatchy Newspapers reports on a new problem facing the Veteran's Administration - women's health issues.  Les Blumenthal writes,

Two nightmares haunt Robin Milonas.  While serving in Afghanistan in 2004 as an Army Reserve civil affairs officer, the former lieutenant colonel got lost in a minefield while leading a small convoy delivering school supplies to civilians. Even more troubling is the memory of a man who arrived at the main gate of Bagram Air Base carrying a young boy whose leg had been blown off by a land mine.

"I was an outgoing, energetic, determined good soldier who wanted to make the Army a career," said Milonas, of Puyallup, Wash., who just turned 50. "Now I am broken." Milonas is one of roughly 180,000 women who've been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. While they don't officially serve in combat, they have experienced life in a war zone where there are no front lines.  And as they return home, they're increasingly turning to an already overtaxed Department of Veterans Affairs for help. Last year, the VA treated more than 255,000 female veterans. The number is expected to double within five years.


VA officials say they're better prepared to handle female patients than they were several years ago. But they acknowledge "continual challenges" as they move to open the door to a man's world, where pap smears and mammograms could become as common as prostate exams. And where "military sexual trauma" would be treated as a serious and growing mental health problem, rather than as a subject to be avoided. . . .

"They aren't ready," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said of VA officials. "Absent a proactive, concerted effort and knowing their limited resources, they (VA officials) are struggling with so much this might get lost."  Murray, perhaps the leading VA critic on Capitol Hill, has introduced legislation that requires studying how serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has affected the physical, mental and reproductive health of women, and how the VA is dealing with their problems.

The legislation also would require the VA to start caring for newborn children of female veterans who are receiving maternity care. Currently the VA doesn't cover newborn costs. In addition, it would require increased training for VA personnel dealing with military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in women.  The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Murray's bill on  Wednesday.

The VA has begun a long-term study of 12,000 female veterans. Female veterans have faced a number of problems, ranging from clinics that don't have full-time obstetrician/gynecologists to uncomfortable group therapy sessions where men outnumber women and topics can include sexual assault and harassment.

Concern is mounting over the number of female veterans suffering from military sexual trauma, which can include rape, assault and harassment. According to the VA, nearly one in five female veterans seeking care has been diagnosed as a victim of military sexual trauma, though some believe the figure could be nearer to one in three. The character Melissa in the comic strip Doonesbury was a victim.  The VA now offers women-only group therapy sessions. In addition, female vets can request female counselors, and women-only entrances to clinics are being provided.  "A lot of women are reluctant to come into a hospital," said Jan Buchanan, a women's veterans program manager for the VA's Puget Sound Region. "It seems too military to them. They fear they might see their perpetrator." . . .

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