WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs officials said Wednesday that they oppose much of a Senate 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 may not be prepared for the anticipated influx of women 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 opposed many sections of the bill by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., including new studies of the physical and mental health problems women veterans faced and how the department was dealing with them. Cross said they would overlap with existing studies underway and would cost millions of dollars that could better be spent on providing health care services.
The VA also opposed sections that would require mental health workers be given 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 women veterans and to provide day care for veterans seeking VA care.
The VA did support a provision requiring each VA medical center have at least one full-time employee acting as a women veterans program manager and would require the department's Advisory Committee on Women Veterans to include women veterans who recently left the military.
"We are addressing the gaps with a number of initiatives," Cross said. "We are absolutely committed to making (women veterans) welcome."
"Making them welcome and addressing their needs are two different things," Murray responded. "It's important we focus laser-like on this."
Women currently 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 currently about 1.7 million women veterans, and the VA is providing health care to about 253,000. The number is expected to double within five years.
Murray said women 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 will vote on Murray's bill on 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 (the VA) some credit. They recognize the barriers to women's care," she said. "I am saying they need to do something about it."