A 2014 study conducted by the Veterans Health Administration Inspector General found that one in five community-based outpatient clinics [CBOCs] run by the VA failed to provide sufficient privacy to female veterans. A 2015 follow-up study showed things improving somewhat. But the latest report, issued in June, 2017 showed the VA still has a long way to go in meeting the basic needs of the women who rely on it for their healthcare.
The findings come amid rising concerns from veteran service organizations who say the VA needs to do much more to provide adequate services to their members. A 2015 survey conducted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America among members of its organization found only 15 percent felt “the general public understands the contributions of women in the military.”
Female Veterans are Fastest-growing Group
Today, 20 percent of armed services recruits are women, as are 15 percent of active duty and 18 percent of reserves. They will be the fastest growing segment of the veteran population over the next five years, Of the almost 22 million veterans in the United States today, more than two million are women, and of those, over 635,000 are enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs system, double the number from before 9/11. It’s predicted they’ll comprise 16 percent of the country’s population of veterans by midcentury.
Problems are Physically Fixable
Regarding the privacy issue in particular, Lou Celli, Director of Veterans' Affairs and Rehabilitation at The American Legion National HQ said: “The Veterans Health Administration is a large organization and ongoing training is expected. There are more women veteran specific clinics at VA medical centers today than ever before and while still not perfect, with the proper funding, we are confident that VA will be able to provide appropriate gender specific facilities at all VA medical locations.”
The problems noted in the Inspector General's report were widespread, but fixable. Nearly 8 percent of CBOCs did not have working manual or electronic locks on examining room doors, and 16 of the 93 clinics had layouts that required female veterans who had changed into gowns to pass through public areas [waiting rooms] to access restrooms.
Treatment of Female Veterans Overall
It’s supposed to be a standard operating procedure for VA medical centers to conduct internal inspections and report violations to VA headquarters, but according to a review conducted by the General Accounting Office, 152 of the 155 violations it found had never been reported. In its final report, it wrote that the VA still had significant unresolved problems ensuring its facilities were equipped “to protect the privacy, safety, and dignity of women veterans when they receive care.” In response, the VA pledged to improve its process. “[We will continue] to evaluate the quality, access, and availability of safe and appropriate healthcare for women and are very pleased with the progress that VA has made over the years,” Celli added.
Change happens slowly as far as military matters are concerned. To some extent, this is understandable. A great deal of thought, energy and treasure have gone into assuring the U.S. military is the greatest fighting force in the world. But when the fight is over, when service people are no longer on active duty or in reserve, they are owed a debt. This is especially true when it comes to their long-term health. The VA has been specifically criticized for its treatment of female veterans, some would say unfairly, but that it has failed to adhere to privacy and safety standards for women vets is undeniable.
Institutional, if Unintentional, Bias
Even the VA motto, which reads, “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” speaks to the VA’s institutional, if unintentional, bias.
The motto is engraved on VA facilities throughout the U.S. It is also used in official VA reports and presentations, and it's featured prominently on the agency’s website. It came from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and it was an eloquent and appropriate statement in its time. But the gender makeup of U.S. troops, and veterans, has changed dramatically since then.
Anecdotally, self-proclaimed patriots have been known to reprimand female veterans for pulling into parking spaces marked “reserved for veterans”. Sadly, it appears the VA in particular, and society in general still, have a long way to go to change a culture of indifference toward female veterans. Respect for, and treatment of, female veterans needs to be on par with the male veterans they served alongside.