Women veterans advocates worry coronavirus crisis will overshadow other needed fixes

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Women veterans advocates worry another victim of the coronavirus pandemic could be progress in addressing gender-discrimination problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

During an online forum Tuesday hosted by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s task force on women veterans, several groups lamented a drop-off in communication with VA officials and tracking of systemic issues at department facilities.

While praising expanded online services as critical to addressing women veterans health needs, they said those improvements cannot erase other long-standing problems like harassment at VA facilities, inconsistent services at different locations, and inadequate tracking of specific challenges facing those veterans.

“Twelve percent of women veterans are single mothers,” said Kaitlynne Hetrick. government affairs associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (and a Navy veteran). “We’ve facing an increasingly stressful environment now, and we have to acknowledge those forces will affect them differently.”

More than 12,000 patients under VA care have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the last three months, and more than 1,000 have died from the illness. Department officials have not released any gender breakdowns of those patients.

Dr. Patty Hayes, chief consultant for VA’s Office of Women’s Health, said that VA officials have pushed to increase outreach to women in recent months, particularly for pregnant veterans to keep them up to date on maternity care changes and offerings.

They’ve also seen significant increases in telehealth for mental health and other medical specialties, and been emphasizing their domestic partner abuse resources.

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But advocates said the department needs to do more. Tammy Barlet, associate director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Legislative Service and a Coast Guard veteran, said department officials are behind on providing data on women’s usage and complaint rates at medical facilities.

“This is the time to over communicate, not go radio silent,” she said.

Maureen Elias, associate legislative director at Paralyzed Veterans of America, said women members of her group have reported in recent weeks more isolation because of the coronavrius crisis and more frustration as they’ve tried to access department services and programs.

“We need to be conducting more screenings, gauging loneliness … and watching for signs of spouse or caregiver abuse,” she said.

VA officials acknowledged there is more to do. Lawmakers said they hope some of the recent changes — especially increased telehealth options — can be made permanent to help those families.

“Women veterans are more likely to experience multiple forms of trauma throughout their lives,” said task force Chairwoman Julia Brownley, D-Calif.

“Women are not only the fastest cohort of veterans, but they are also twice as likely to die from suicide than those who have never served. And times of crisis, such as global pandemics, exacerbate many of those challenges.”

About

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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