Report: Services for female veterans fall short

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department and other government agencies are not doing enough to help women who served in the military, even as their number is rising dramatically, according to a new report.

The report, released Wednesday by the Disabled American Veterans, identified serious gender gaps in virtually every program serving veterans, including health care, job training, finance, housing, social issues and combatting sexual assault.

The advocacy group's report blamed most of the deficiencies on a disregard for the needs of female veterans, saying the VA and other agencies focus on "the 80 percent solution for men who dominate (veterans affairs) in both numbers and public consciousness."

A sharp increase in reporting of military sexual trauma is an illustration of problems that require "radical change" at the VA and throughout the military, the report says.

"At a time when the number of women veterans is growing to unprecedented levels, our country is simply not doing enough to meet their health, social and economic needs," said Joy Ilem, DAV's deputy national legislative director. Female veterans "deserve equal respect, consideration and care as the men who served, yet the support systems are ill-equipped to meet the unique needs of the brave women who have defended our country," she said.

The DAV report closely tracks an Associated Press review in June that found serious shortcomings in how the VA cares for female veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them of child-bearing age.

The AP review found that nearly one in four VA hospitals does not have a fulltime gynecologist on staff, and that 140 of the 920 community-based clinics serving veterans in rural areas do not have a designated women's health provider, despite a goal that all clinics have one.

Female veterans of child-bearing age were far more likely to be given medications that can cause birth defects than were women being treated through a private doctor, the AP found.

The VA cared for about 390,000 female veterans last year at its hospitals and clinics — far fewer than the 5.3 million male veterans who used the VA system in fiscal year 2013. 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 have dramatically changed the VA's patient load, and the system has yet to fully catch up.

While the number of male veterans is expected to decline by 2020, the number of female veterans is expected to grow dramatically, to 11 percent of the veteran population, the report said.

Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA's acting undersecretary for health, said the VA will consider all of the report's 27 recommendations on topics including health care, education, job training and sexual assault.

The report will serve "as our road map for improvements," Clancy told a gathering of female veterans and their supporters at the Capitol on Wednesday. The VA is working to ensure that all clinics and hospitals have a women's health provider onsite, she said, adding the agency makes referrals to private providers in cases where none is available at the VA.

"We've made some great progress," Clancy said in an interview. "Certainly the awareness (of women's issues) is way up. It's certainly a priority."

The disabled veterans group released the report, entitled "Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home," at a news conference, along with a screening of a documentary called "Journey to Normal," which tells the story of female veterans returning home from deployments overseas.

Producer-director JulieHera DeStefano said the film is intended to tell personal stories, but also shows how women are integrated into all phases of the military, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We wanted to put a face on service," she said.

When compared with men, women in the military are less likely overall to be married, more likely to be married to a fellow service member, more likely to be a single parent, more likely to be divorced, and more likely to be unemployed after their service, the report said. Female veterans also tend to be younger than their male counterparts and are less likely to use VA benefits, the report said.

About 1 in 5 female veterans have delayed or gone without needed medical care in the prior 12 months, the report said.


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