Pittsburgh, Erie VA hospitals turn attention to female veterans' needs
Department of Veterans Affairs officials say the system is working to change the reality and perception of its ability to treat women.
You're almost scared to go to the gynecologist at the VA because you don't know how good they are, said Lisa Bokinsky, 43, of Windber, a former Navy Seabee.
Yet the VA Pittsburgh Health System has begun to provide more traditional women's health care, adding staff and specialists, said Dr. Melissa McNeil, director of women's health for the hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara.
It has expanded cervical cancer screening, contraception and maternity care, and added an interdisciplinary breast cancer program.
All of which we've built in response to our increasing number of women, she said.
Her goal is to provide care that keeps female veterans from having to visit different facilities. Many have not utilized the VA as much as men have.
They somehow seem to think that the care they need won't be there, McNeil said.
VA statistics show that, nationally, the number of female veterans receiving disability compensation or pensions increased 28 percent, to about 370,000, between 2011 and 2014. In 10 Western Pennsylvania counties, the number grew by 68 percent, to 1,563 women.
By comparison, the number of male veterans with disability benefits increased 9 percent, to 25,031.
At the Erie VA Medical Center, the number of female veterans enrolled in fiscal year 2014 was 1,418 a 9 percent increase over the two years prior, said spokeswoman Sarah Gudgeon. The center responded by expanding its women's health services and adding a women-only group to discuss post-traumatic stress disorder.
Officials are cognizant of the need to tell women about the changes, Gudgeon said.
You always think of the veterans hospitals as your grandfather's VA, she said.
Experts say the number of female veterans will continue to increase.
Women comprise about 15 percent of active duty military, but 20 percent of recruits are women, said Shawn Scott Hope, a spokesman in Pittsburgh for Disabled American Veterans. Nationally, there are about 7,000 female veterans from the Vietnam era, 41,000 from the first Gulf War and 300,000 from post-9/11, he said.
Those seeking treatment at VA hospitals, such as Bokinsky, are younger than doctors and nurses traditionally saw in the past, McNeil said.
Bokinsky injured her knee while supervising a construction project on Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that's home to a large Navy base.
The project was a stop on her deployment to Iraq, where she was to oversee construction projects. Instead, she ended up in an office with a bum knee.
It took about a year and a half to get corrected, Bokinsky said.
She also developed palmoplantar psoriasis, a rare condition that covered her hands and feet in blisters and spread to other parts of her body. A former Navy reservist, she said she generally has received good medical care and agrees with the VA's new emphasis on women's health issues.
Erica Ellis, 32, of Erie said she rarely sees other women seeking primary care at the Erie hospital.
A 10-year veteran of the Navy, she fell down a ladder well on an aircraft carrier, permanently injuring her leg, and has severe carpal tunnel syndrome.
I love my doctor at the VA she's awesome, Ellis said.
But the medical center often refers her to community doctors because it lacks specialists in women's health, she said. It's extremely frustrating.
The Erie hospital provides basic women's health screenings but doesn't have enough female patients to hire specialists in women's health, Gudgeon said.
Brian Bowling is a Total Trib Media staff writer. Contact him at 412-325-4301 at [email protected]
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