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As more women turn to the VA for care, bipartisan bill and efforts in Tampa Bay would improve services

The Deborah Sampson Act to expand, improve women’s VA healthcare is before the U.S. Senate.

More than 545,000 women veterans are getting healthcare through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That number has tripled since 2007 and is expected to keep growing as more women enter military service and eventually become veterans.

While a bipartisan bill intended to improve women veterans’ healthcare makes its way through Congress, national and local Veterans Affairs leaders are working to meet the increasing demand, including opening a new local women’s health center.

“We’re the largest growing population or gender that’s now receiving care from the VA,” said Deshauna Barber, chief executive of the national nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network.

The Deborah Sampson Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November, has made it to the U.S. Senate. It has been in the works for years, Barber said. It’s named after a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Barber’s nonprofit advocated for the bill, which would establish an office of women’s health within the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also would require the agency to provide gender-specific equipment, such as mammogram machines, at each of its medical centers and to expand healthcare coverage for newborns of veterans, among other things.

Barber knows how long legislation can take to materialize. She hopes that in the meantime the VA will address her organization’s concerns, such as not having gynecologists at every medical center, not having a specific women’s clinic at each site and reports of sexual harassment occurring in the facilities.

The Department of Veterans Affairs designates at least two women’s primary care providers at every hospital and at most of its community-based outpatient clinics, said Patricia M. Hayes, chief officer of women’s health for the agency.

“Our goal is to have at least one everywhere,” Hayes said. “We’ve trained over 4,800 providers in this model of care over the last couple of years alone.”

Of their 140 healthcare systems, 28 don’t have a gynecologist on staff, she said, and there are no surgery services at these sites.

The majority of systems have a designated women’s clinic at their main hospital, Hayes said, although some women veterans say that having a free-standing clinic is not a concern of theirs.

The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa has a women’s center with a dedicated entrance for women veterans and their families, said Dana Glenn, the center’s medical director, and providers are trained in women’s healthcare.

The Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg has a women’s clinic with similarly trained providers and specialists, including gynecologists, psychologists and social workers, said Tahirih Jensen, the women’s health medical director for the site.

Bay Pines anticipates construction to begin in 2022 on a nearly 20,000-square-foot facility for women’s healthcare on its campus, said Donna Sherman, the women veteran program manager.

Still, work remains at the national and local level to meet women veterans’ needs, including addressing reports of sexual harassment at Veterans Affairs centers and clinics.

In studies done since 2015, approximately 20 to 25 percent of participating women veterans reported experiencing verbal harassment, either sexual or gender-based, predominately from male veteran patients at Veterans Affairs sites, Hayes said.

Efforts in recent years to end that harassment have helped, as a 2020 follow-up study of about 1,400 women found that 18 percent reported cases, Hayes said. The agency continues to train staff in measures such as bystander intervention, she said, and racial harassment also has become a focus.

Hayes wants the agency’s healthcare system to innovate and be ready to address women’s specific healthcare concerns, including cardiac conditions, thyroid disease and breathing conditions such as asthma.

Leaders at both Tampa Bay VA healthcare systems said it will come down to hiring the right people and offering the right training for this patient population.

“We would like to be able to break through that notion that we’re some antiquated 1950s place that doesn’t know how to take care of women,” Hayes said.

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