Female veterans shortchanged by medical services, critics complain to Congress

March 10, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The nation's health care system for veterans came under attack at a congressional hearing yesterday when several witnesses accused the government of failing to respond fully to the health needs of female veterans.

Critics of the Department of Veterans Affairs said government hospitals provide too little privacy and limited medical services for women. Even doctors at the Baltimore VA

Medical Center -- which has a relatively large number of female patients -- say that for every woman who walks through its doors, many choose to stay away.

"We're not able to get them into the VA because we're still perceived as a male-dominated system," Dr. Colleen Donnelly, a psychiatrist at the Baltimore VA, said in an interview. "We need to get women to realize that we're a health care facility. We're not the military."

At the hearing, the General Accounting Office released a study that criticized the VA for failing to improve its coverage for women. The GAO cited huge gaps in gender-specific medical care.

"The VA central office has not effectively monitored field facilities to ensure . . . improved services for women veterans," said David P. Baine, director of federal health care delivery services for the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Meanwhile, the demand for specialized care for female veterans is growing. While only 4 percent of today's 27 million veterans are women, that number is expected to increase by 17 percent by 2010.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder said that despite increased numbers of female veterans, men are far more likely than women to seek care at a VA center.

"The VA is still having a hard time shaking its gender bias," Ms. Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, said in testimony to the panel. "And women are still having a hard time believing the VA can treat them as veterans."

By all accounts, however, Baltimore's VA Medical Center appears to break this mold. About 1,500 women checked in to the medical center last year, and the number of routine gynecological visits swelled from 100 to 250 over the past year, said Andrea Van Horn, the women veterans coordinator at the Baltimore VA.

Ms. Van Horn cited several relics of VA hospital care, from coed bathrooms without doors to facilities without gynecological equipment. "It's time to be sensitive to gender issues," she said.

The Baltimore VA has created programs to foster an awareness of the specialized needs of female veterans. Last year, the Baltimore hospital established a counseling project to treat female veterans who have been sexually harassed or assaulted during their military service. In the past year, seven women requested such counseling.

"This particular VA is very much geared toward women," said Dr. Donnelly, who runs the program. "It's making a lot of attempts to bring women in."

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