Posted on April 28, 2014

Women vets often underuse services

According to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) veteran population data, the state of Wyoming has about 5,700 female veterans, and many of them still don’t utilize the services they have earned.

In addition to Wyoming, with patient catchment areas in northern Colorado and western Nebraska, Brandy Marshall, Cheyenne VAMC Women Veterans Program manager (WVPM), revealed, “VA is trying to eliminate the ‘this is not your father’s VA’ perception by implementing new and innovative programs and activities that specifically serve women.”

In 2012 the Cheyenne and Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMC), in partnership with four prominent Veteran Service Organizations or VSOs—Wyoming Department of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), American Legion, Wyoming Veterans Commission and other community organizations—hosted a daylong event for the women of Wyoming who have served in the U.S. military. Some “85 women warriors attended that first year,” Marshall said.

An Air Force veteran, Dr. Cynthia McCormack, Cheyenne VAMC Medical Center director, added: “Progress is being made, but with combined enrollments in Cheyenne and Sheridan VAMCs at 2,500 (1,700 for Cheyenne and 880 in Sheridan) we still have work to do to register veterans. With Wyoming being so rural, and particularly Sheridan, there are ambitious efforts underway to connect with every veteran in the state.”

James Murphy, Cheyenne VAMC supervisor of ambulatory care and processing and retired Air Force master sergeant, related: “Before the advent of mobile clinics, community-based outpatient clinics and social media, knowing where to turn for help could be a challenge.

Veteran communication barrier eliminated

In the last 10 years connecting with veterans was part of the problem, but today that barrier has been eliminated.” In Murphy’s experience, stigmas and misinformation keep most veterans from seeking help. Some believe their benefits have a time limit, and others had negative experiences at VA hospitals in the past.

Murphy helped design a portable system that completely enrolls veterans for health care, determines eligibility and schedules the initial appointment. The Mobile Business Office (MBO) is a specially configured computer with a secure wireless network connection and a web camera that has streamlined the process.

Murphy also explained: “What use to take a student veteran from Laramie multiple trips, a few hours out of class, several tanks of gas and six weeks just to get an ID card before an appointment could be made, can now be done in a few key strokes, a mouse click for the veteran identification card and a three-week turnaround. And the student hasn’t even left campus.”

Since October 2013 the MBO has enrolled 66 veterans at a rate of 11 veterans a month for the last six months.

VA staff members travel with the Mobile Business Office to outreach events, information fairs and town hall meetings to register veterans and make the process easier, smoother and more convenient. However, even with technology and aggressive outreach, Murphy still hears this comment on a regular basis, “I didn’t know that I was eligible.”

Surprisingly, a staff member of Colleen Butler, Sheridan Women’s Veterans Program manager, encountered an OIF/OEF (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom) female veteran recently who said she “never thought she was eligible.” Butler said she felt “a lack of awareness on the part of female veterans, coupled with a low media market representation in Sheridan, contributes to their numbers.” However, “in the last quarter they picked up 22 new enrollments, due to the Affordable Care Act, which provides affordable health insurance plans to choose from,” she noted.

For some older women, eligibility is not the issue. According to Dr. Amanda, Johnson Cheyenne VA Women’s Clinic manager, “Most of the new patients I see have lost their private insurance and want to see what VA is about.” Additionally, “these women have private insurance through their spouse or employer, so if you live in places like Rawlins, Wyo., and Sydney, Neb., why would you come to Cheyenne for care?”

Research from the National Center of Veterans Analysis and Statistics indicates other possible barriers to health care can contribute to underutilization of health care services and nonadherence to recommendations from health professionals: attitudinal barriers such as past experiences in health care; mistrust of health professionals and institutions; and perceptions of discrimination or unfair treatment.

Cheyenne VAMC has a major marketing campaign underway to reach more veterans that says, “If you’ve served in the U.S. military, you may be eligible for benefits.”

“There isn’t a statute of limitation on registering. If a current illness can be linked to military service, your health care could be paid for,” said Murphy of the Cheyenne VA. ”Whenever we do an outreach event and the elderly come, there is usually one WWII vet not enrolled. And if that is the only vet that we sign up that day, then a one-way, three-hour trip was well worth it. That is why we do outreach.”

VA does not view veterans by age, gender, duty or combat status

Sheridan VA’s Butler stressed the importance of the VA viewed as an agency that cares for all veterans, regardless of age, regardless of gender, regardless of active duty or combat status. “But women sometimes need more support networks and more encouragement,” thus P.O.W.W.O.W. was conceived, she said.

“The VA focus is on bringing the information and services ‘to the veteran.’ We don’t want our warriors to ‘happen’ upon information, hear about it from someone else (because what applies to one may not apply to another) or get it from a social media source not geared towards veterans or provide contact information to reach a VA or clinic,” Butler said.

“Despite their residential location in the state of Wyoming, northern Colorado or western Nebraska, veterans are encouraged to reach out to a Veteran Service Office, the nearest VA hospital, outpatient clinic, by phone or online to receive help from paying bills to addressing health issues. By being silent, the VA has no way of knowing who’s a veteran and what help they may need,” the Sheridan WVPM said,

“Veterans have to identify themselves,” Butler said. “There are a lot of opportunities available for women that they are not aware of.” She reiterated: “Be proud of your service. Get connected. Reap the benefits that you have earned, and get the help you need to stay strong and viable for your future.”

P.O.W.W.O.W website

Event to connect
female comrades