The Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system embodies the nation’s promise to care for those who have “borne the battle.” Its well-documented struggles with wait times and caring for those in mental health crisis have reflected in part a generational challenge: meeting the needs of young veterans from recent conflicts while providing the care that aging veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam deserve.
Thanks to the nation’s veteran service organizations, there’s a growing spotlight on yet another critical challenge facing the VA — caring for the increasing number of women who have served. Fortunately, a historic bill that cleared the U.S. House last week — the Deborah Sampson Act — recognizes this vital mission. If a companion measure passes the Senate, it would help provide the direction and resources the VA needs to properly care for military women.
The Senate shouldn’t dally in passing its bill, whose cosponsors include Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. The Sampson Act had broad support in the House, where all eight members of the Minnesota delegation voted for it. There’s no reason it would lack the same appeal in the Senate. Passage would also send a reassuring message. Despite the partisanship Congress is mired in, elected officials can still agree that we will keep our promises to care for those who served.
The legislation’s name reflects that women have fought for their country since its birth. Deborah Sampson was one of two female veterans of the Revolutionary War, according to the office of Rep. Julia Brownley, the California Democrat who authored the bill.
With new options, such as serving in previously closed combat roles, women are vital members of the nation’s fighting forces. This year, women are “20% of the Air Force, 19% of the Navy, 15% of the Army and almost 9% of the Marine Corps,” according to a recent Military.com commentary.
Today, 10% of veterans are women, according to the VA. In the next quarter century, that percentage is expected to rise to 16.3%. The VA has historically served mostly men. It must evolve to deliver the care female vets have earned. For example, it will need to have more doctors on staff to provide maternity and other specialized care for female veterans. Its mental health care programs will also need to be prepared to care for veterans who have experienced sexual trauma in the military. Roughly one in five women said yes when screened for this by the Veterans Health Administration, according to the VA.
The Sampson Act is the first multipronged effort to begin addressing care gaps within the VA. It would establish an Office of Women’s Health within the department and ensure “that gender-specific services are continuously available at every VA Medical Center and community-based outpatient clinic,” according to Brownley’s office.
The act also calls for improved newborn care and would authorize additional resources for physicians undergoing training in the VA’s women’s veteran health care programs. The bill would strengthen care and benefits for women who are grappling with sexual assault or domestic violence, as well.
The legislation isn’t a panacea, but it would help the VA immediately improve critical services for female vets and lay the foundation to address other systemic barriers to care. Veterans service organizations have been pushing for years for these changes. Their work put a compelling spotlight on these unmet needs and played a critical role in the momentum the legislation needed to clear the House. Now, it’s up to the Senate.
Veterans groups aren’t seeking special treatment for women, said Tom Porter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Instead, advocates’ demands boil down to this: “Equal treatment.”