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Bill on female vets gets VA thumbs-down

Bill on female vets gets VA thumbs-down


WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that it opposes much of Sen. Patty Murray’s bill to improve care for female veterans, even as the number of women seeking VA medical services is expected to double within the next five years.

A top VA official admitted during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing that the agency might not be prepared for the anticipated influx of female veterans.

“We recognize there may well be gaps in services for women veterans, especially given the VA designed its clinics and services based on data when women comprised a much smaller percentage of those serving in the armed forces,” said Gerald Cross, the VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for health.

But Cross said the VA opposes many sections of the bill sponsored by Murray, a Washington state Democrat.

The agency’s concerns cover new studies of the physical and mental health problems female veterans faced and how the department was dealing with them. Cross said that would overlap with existing studies under way and would cost millions of dollars that could better be spent on health care services.

The VA also opposed sections that would require mental health workers to get special training on how to care for female victims of military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, to require additional staff to deal with female veterans and to provide child care for veterans seeking VA care. The agency’s concerns about those proposals involved cost, necessity and a preference to let each region or hospital decide how to allocate its staffing.

The VA does support a provision requiring each VA medical center to have at least one full-time employee acting as a female veterans program manager and would require the department’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans to include women who recently left the military.

“We are addressing the gaps with a number of initiatives,” Cross said. “We are absolutely committed to making (female veterans) welcome.”

“Making them welcome and addressing their needs are two different things,” Murray responded. “It’s important we focus laserlike on this.”

Women make up 14 percent of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve forces. About 180,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, there are about 1.7 million female veterans, and the VA is providing health care to about 253,000. That number is expected to double within five years.

Murray said female veterans have long been reluctant to voice their concerns.

“The voices of women are no longer whispers,” she said. “Today, they are full-throated calls for equal access to care at the VA.”

The committee is scheduled to vote on Murray’s bill June 26.

The senator said after the hearing that she was particularly upset with the VA for saying it didn’t have the money to implement major provisions in her bill.

“That irritates me,” she said. “I almost come out of my chair when I hear that. If they need more money, then they should ask for it.”

“At least they didn’t say no, no, no,” she said. “I’ve been around long enough to know the VA doesn’t want anyone telling them what to do. But I know if you don’t tell them, they do what they want.”

“I give them some credit. They recognize the barriers to women’s care,” she added. “I am saying they need to do something about it.”

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008