Female veterans should expect highest standard of care from VA

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Joni MarquezGuest columnist
Columnist: Many female veterans experience anxiety about the care they’ll get from the VA.

When the U.S. military opened up all combat positions to women earlier this year, there were already more than 200,000 women — including me — serving in our armed forces. That number will grow as more women answer the call to serve. After we have done our duty and return home as veterans, what kind of life should we expect?

I’m trying to answer that question right now. As I wind down my military career after 14 years of service, what I want most is a normal life. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to help me make that transition, but how can I trust the VA will treat me with dignity and respect when there are so many examples in recent years of the department letting us down?

Everything I’ve learned from the news or heard from other veterans suggests that I could fall victim to excessive wait times at VA medical facilities, unaccountable and negligent staff, or compassionless treatment.

None of that will help me find the normal life I’m seeking.

My military service involved extremely high-stress assignments, oftentimes with lives on the line. I provided close air support for ground troops, covering their backs and keeping them safe. Like many veterans in such situations, I’m now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD.

I thought I’d be able to turn to the VA for care when I left the military, but as I transition into civilian life and join the ranks of Florida’s more than 150,000 female veterans, I have a growing list of concerns. I haven’t even begun receiving VA benefits, but already I feel like I’m being treated like a number. To qualify for benefits, I must undergo extensive medical evaluation, but the process has been bureaucratic and insensitive. I’ve faced a mountain of paperwork and receive evaluations from doctors without experience treating patients with PTSD.

How much worse will it be when I have to rely on VA health care? A female veteran I know, who is also suffering PTSD and receives VA care, warns me to expect an impersonal regimen of pills.

News from around the country shows that her experience isn’t unique. The Tomah, Wis., veterans’ hospital, for example, has become infamous for its overreliance on pills. Known as “Candyland” for how easy it was to obtain opioids, at least one veteran — Jason Simcakoski — died there as a result of overmedication. This appears to be a long and ongoing problem; studies show that as far back as 2005, veterans receiving VA care were up to twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose as the civilian population.

Although there are surely many VA doctors providing the highest standard of care and doing far more than dispensing pills, there’s no guarantee they’ll be the ones treating me. As I experience anxiety about the quality of my care, I realize I’m far from the only one in this predicament. One study shows that as many as 17 percent of veterans since the Vietnam War suffer from PTSD. We shouldn’t have to leave our health to chance.

The VA isn’t doing enough to change this. The department frequently blames its budget for problems, but that budget has grown from $97.7 billion to $163 billion over the past seven years, even as quality steadily has declined. Money isn’t the problem.

VA officials must focus on providing veterans with health-care choices, maintaining accountable and professional staff, and guaranteeing we won’t slip through the cracks. There’s no secret to caring for female veterans; we just want to be treated like human beings.

As more women re-enter civilian life, we must form a support system and work to help each other, as well as ensure the VA does its part. Florida has the third-largest female veteran population, and we can be an army for change if we work together.

Men and women who serve with distinction and valor will inspire future generations to do the same. Our country’s treatment of these heroes when they return home to civilian life should be just as inspiring.

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