VA Working To Make Female Veterans More Welcome, Visible

Jul 13, 2016

In an agency that was "built for men," VA leaders are working to add health care services for female veterans.

Maggie Castillotorres says it's easy to feel invisible in society as a woman veteran, but she wasn't expecting to have that experience when she walked into a Veterans Affairs hospital in San Diego.

"They said, 'Are you here with your spouse? Are you the spouse of a veteran?'" she says. "It happened several times."

Castillotorres, who served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, is one of the growing population of women finding themselves in a veterans system that's not quite ready for them.

"The VA was built for men," says Dr. Patty Hayes, the chief consultant for women veterans' health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "And we’ve been working hard to build in all the things women need."

Hayes' job is to help the VA accommodate the influx of women leaving the services. VA officials say while women made up about 2 percent of the active duty military during World War II, that's risen to about 15 percent today. And the number of women getting their health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs has nearly tripled since September 11, 2001 to 675,000.

Hayes says the VA has moved steadily, if slowly, towards providing gender-specific services.

When Dr. Hayes started working for the VA in the mid-1980s, she says many VA facilities didn't even have restrooms for women.

"There were very small numbers of women that were being seen at the VA medical centers," Hayes says. "The care wasn't really very good."

But now about 90 percent of the 800 VA-run health care facilities nationwide have at least one specially trained "primary care women's provider" on staff. That can be a doctor, a nurse practitioner, or a physician's assistant.

And some facilities across the country, like the VA's largest hospital in Westwood, Cal. have women-only clinics. 

The Westwood women's clinic has gone from operating two half-days per week a decade ago to a full-time enterprise with a staff of 30 and about 10,000 patients.

Dr. Fatma Batuman runs the clinic, which she calls a "one stop shop."

Female vets can come in to Batuman's clinic and be seen for mental health care, primary care, and gender-specific care. The clinic recently added a staff pharmacist as well.

Dr. Batuman says all of her providers are women as well. 

Navy veteran Maggie Castillotorres says she felt disrespected in her first visits to a VA hospital in San Diego. She's now a student at Pasadena City College and says she gets better care at the VA hospital in Westwood.
Credit Maya Sugarman / KPCC

The clinic is so popular, Batuman says, that they're hoping to double its space in the coming years. 

The women-only space is what attracted Castillotorres back to the VA, after going elsewhere for care for years.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the clinic was filled with veterans waiting to see their doctors. 

Among them were Ramona Yates, and her one-month-old daughter.  

Yates says people are often shocked when she tells them she served in the Marine Corps.

"It's weird to me that people don't think, or even let it into their head, that females go into the military and serve their country as well as men do," Yates said. "It's interesting and bothersome at the same time."

The VA hospital doesn't have a maternity ward, so she delivered her baby nearby at UCLA's hospital. 

Yates says if the women's clinic didn't exist, she probably wouldn't use VA health care at all.

"I don't like going over to the other side [of the hospital]," Yates says. 

The problem?

"We feel invisible." 

When asked what can be done about that, Yates shakes her head.

"I'm still trying to work that out."