Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Female Veterans Access to VA Hearing
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's "Female Veterans Access to VA Hearing":
Today we welcome Dr. Patricia Hayes, the Chief Consultant for Women’s Health Services and Dr. Susan McCutcheon, the National Mental Health Director for Family Services, Women’s Mental Health, and Military Sexual Trauma.
Women have been serving in the military in various capacities since World War II, and the number of women in the military has continued to increase over the years. Women have faced challenges in gaining access to combat roles – it was not until 2016 that all combat positions were finally open to women.
And just like in the battlespace, women face unique challenges when they leave military service and seek access to healthcare through the VA. Just like men make up the largest population in the military, the VA is dominated by gender-specific care programs for men. While the VA has taken great strides to increase access of care to women, more needs to be done.
Women and men serve with equal commitment in the military, and we need parity when it comes to access and gender-specific care options at the VA. Funding for gender-specific healthcare for women has remained stagnant at around $500 million over the past few years, yet women are the fastest-growing veteran group – they make up about 9 percent of the current veteran population, and are estimated to make up 15 percent by 2035.
More resources need to be invested to increase women veterans’ access to care. Women should be able to walk into any VA facility and receive a basic standard of care. Having women doctors and gender-specific care programs for women at every single VA facility is the absolute least we can do, and we are not currently providing it.
On the bright side, telehealth programs have greatly expanded access to care, primarily to veterans in rural or remote areas. VHA provides gender-specific care through telehealth services, but VA cannot rely only on telehealth services to expand care to women veterans.
Like everyone around this table, the mental health of all veterans remains a top priority for me. Women veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to non-veteran women, and the suicide rate for women veterans is climbing much faster than for male veterans, with a 45 percent increase from 2005 to 2015. Women who have experienced military sexual trauma are also more likely to commit suicide, and we must do better to protect veterans who experienced military sexual trauma.
While VA has made mental health its top clinical priority, we need to dramatically reduce the numbers in veteran suicide rates, and start seeing effective results of VA’s mental health programs.
Dr. Hayes, thank you again for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony and discussing these important issues with you and Dr. McCutcheon.