Senate committee examines barriers for women veterans receiving VA healthcare

More women are joining the U.S. military, and that means more women veterans are turning to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for healthcare services.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says women are the fastest-growing group served by VHA today. Since 2001, the number of women vets using VA services has more than tripled, with 625,000 enrolled last year.

But not all women veterans are able to access the care they need.

This week, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee heard about the barriers for women vets and efforts by the VA to better serve them.

“It is our obligation to ensure all women veterans encounter barrier-free access to healthcare and benefits,” said Julie Howell, Associate Legislative Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), in her testimony.

Howell spoke with our Washington News Bureau about the challenges for women veterans living with a spinal-cord injury or disease when trying to access care.

“There’s a high level of complex need that they have,” said Howell.

Howell pointed to barriers at the clinics.

“Narrow doorways. Limited family bathrooms,” said Howell. “Something like a family bathroom is going to make more sense and it’s going to be appropriate because then you have enough space for you and your caregiver who may be another gender.”

Senators shared stories from women veterans who have told them about challenges with limited resources, including not having enough clinics that provide mammograms or reproductive care.

“One woman had to find a new doctor for her third pregnancy because her prior one was no longer willing to work with the VA,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).

“I heard from a veteran who was looking for care at American Lake VA, which was close to where she lived, but the women’s clinic was completely full,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The VA said it is prioritizing access to women’s care, including preventative care and mental health services.

“To address gender-specific health concerns, we’ve developed several primary healthcare policies, one of which includes assigning a woman to a trained woman’s health primary care provider, should she choose to have that,” said Dr. Erica Scavella, Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Services at the VHA. “As of September 2023, all healthcare systems have at least three primary care providers who are specializing in women’s health.”

Veterans warn there is still more work that needs to be done to make sure women vets aren’t being left behind.

“What we’re asking of VA is that they recognize that if you were to build a system for the neediest veteran in your care, it doesn’t take away from anybody else,” said Howell.

Congress examines how to address rising childcare costs for families & providers

More affordable childcare is needed nationwide, but many centers are struggling just to cover operating costs.

“We’ve been in survival mode for a while,” said Amy Brooks, executive director at the Early Care and Education Association.

That’s how Amy Brooks describes the current environment for childcare centers. She operated one for 20 years in New Hampshire and she said workforce is one of the biggest barriers for providers.

“Trying to balance keeping childcare affordable in a payroll heavy industry and not putting that burden directly on to parents,” she said.

Brooks said many providers won’t raise their prices which means it’s difficult to boost pay for employees.

“Any other small business, they charge the customer enough to help cover the cost of their workforce and their cost of operating, in child care we’re not able to do that,” she said.

This week, Brooks voiced those concerns directly to Congress during the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

“I work with these child care businesses on a daily basis and they tell me they are struggling to reach the break even point,” said Brooks during the congressional hearing.

Brooks said increasing prices at child care centers means fewer families who can afford those services.

This comes as one national study found this growing child care crisis is leading to $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue every year. Federal data also shows thousands of people have to stay home from work each month because of childcare problems.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen believes something has to change.

“Families across America are relying on us to help childcare providers stay open and provide affordable care options,” said Sen. Shaheen, (D) New Hampshire.

Republican Senator Joni Ernst believes states may have some of the answers. She pointed to her home state of Iowa and how the governor helped create thousands of new childcare center openings.

“Governor Reynolds in my home state of Iowa is setting an example we can all learn from, she incentivized employers to provide childcare and encouraged local governments to collaborate with businesses of all sizes to address their community’s childcare shortages,” said Sen. Ernst, (R) Iowa.

During the congressional hearing, some experts also suggested expanding access to various childcare options.

“State and local lawmakers should consider establishing multiple levels of licensing standards with a goal of increasing those in home, faith based, and employer provided childcare,” said Rachel Greszler from the Heritage Foundation

Some lawmakers want to make it easier for childcare centers to access federal funding. One proposal would allow nonprofit providers to participate in certain loan programs of the Small Business Administration.