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Witness Testimony of Shirley A. Quarles, RN, EdD, Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, Chair, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Hall, Chairman Michaud, and Members of the Subcommittees, I am pleased to testify today on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee for Women Veterans regarding our views on: how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serves women veterans through its current programs; the present and future needs of a growing women veterans population; the strategies VA has for meeting these needs; and outreach efforts that are being conducted by VA for women veterans.

The Advisory Committee on Women Veterans (ACWV) was established by Public Law 98-160 in 1983.  The Advisory Committee is charged with advising the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on VA benefits and services for women veterans, assessing the needs of women veterans, reviewing VA programs and activities designed to meet the needs of women veterans, and developing recommendations that address unmet needs of women veterans.  The Advisory Committee submits a biennial report to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs that delineates the Committee’s findings and recommendations.

The Advisory Committee on Women Veterans consist of 14 members (women and men) most are veterans; who have served across all services of the Armed Forces.  This Committee is supported by the Center for Women Veterans with advisors and ex-officio members from the Department of Defense (DoD), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), Veterans Health Administration (VHA), National Cemetery Administration (NCA), Department of Labor (DoL), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

How is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serving women through its current programs?

As a means to obtain information regarding women veterans’ services and programs provided by VA on health care and benefits, the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans (ACWV) conducts site visits to VA facilities throughout the U.S.  Additionally, the ACWV tours the facilities and meets with senior leaders to discuss services and programs available to women veterans.  During the site visits, the ACWV also hosts open forums with the local women veterans’ community to encourage open dialogue from women veterans to share their experiences within VA, to discuss issues, and to raise questions related to gender specific VA benefits and services. 

As another means to obtain information regarding women veterans’ services and programs provided by VA, the ACWV meets twice a year at VA Central Office (VACO) and receives briefings from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration, (VBA), National Cemetery Administration (NCA), Office of Research and Development (ORD), and other staff offices.  These briefings update the Committee on the status of VA programs and how these programs address the needs of women veterans.  During these meetings, Members have the opportunity to question presenters about services in their area of concentration and share their observations and concerns from site visits.  The Advisory Committee uses information gathered from the site visits and briefings to formulate recommendations to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the biennial reports.  The Center for Women Veterans provides support to the ACWV during their site visits and meetings at VACO.

In the 2006 Report of the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, the Committee made 23 recommendations that addressed behavioral and mental health care, health care, military sexual trauma (MST), outreach, research studies, strategic planning, training, women veterans health program, women veterans program managers and women veterans coordinators, and homeless women veterans. 

One recommendation that has already been implemented was to organizationally realign the Women Veterans Health Program Office to the status of a Strategic Healthcare Group.  With the recent elevation of the Women Veterans Health Program to the Women Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group, it has  positioned the office to gain expertise in the population of women veterans, strategically plan for healthcare delivery and provide leadership in clinical knowledge of this unique group of women and to catalyze optimal integration of women veterans health issues across all VHA programs and offices.  VA strives to be the lifetime provider of healthcare services to women veterans and exceed their expectations for care during each phase of their lifecycle.  Additionally, VA aims to be a world leader in innovative and high quality for women veterans.

In the area of women veterans health program, the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans 2006 Report recommended that VA ensure that the Center for Women Veterans is provided an annual update on the effectiveness of the responsibilities of the VHA Women Veterans Program Managers.  VHA leaders and the Acting Chief Consultant, Women Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group (formerly known as Women Veterans Health Program), briefed the Committee on this issue at the February – March 2007 Advisory Committee for Women Veterans meeting.  Additionally, the Acting Chief Consultant and the Women Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group work closely with the Center for Women Veterans on issues that are frequently referred to Women Veterans Program Managers in field facilities.

The submission of the 2006 Report to Congress was at the discretion of the Secretary for Veterans Affairs; a strong supporter of the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.  As a courtesy to this Committee, the Secretary agreed to forward the report to Congress during May 2007.

What are the present and future needs of these growing populations and what strategies does VA have for meeting them?

One area the Advisory Committee for Women Veterans was able to witness first hand the present needs of women veterans’ mental health care was at our site visit in June 2007 to the Women’s Mental Health Center in Palo Alto, CA.  The Women’s Trauma Recovery Program (WTRP) is a 60-day residential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma (MST) treatment program. 

The future needs can be met through research and studies specifically on women veterans.  In the 2004 and 2006 Advisory Committee on Women Veterans Reports, research and studies have been recommended.  The last national survey of female veterans was conducted in 1985, leaving VHA policy makers and managers with limited information with which to adequately plan for future health care services for women veterans.  To address this knowledge gap, the WVHSHG commissioned Donna Washington, MD, MPH, VA Greater Los Angeles HSR&D Center of Excellence, to conduct a National Survey of Women Veterans.  The objectives of the National Survey of Women Veterans are: (1) identify the current demographics, health care needs, and VA experiences of women veterans; (2) determine how health care needs and barriers to VA health care use differ among women veterans of different periods of military service, e.g., OEF/OIF versus earlier periods; and (3) assess women veterans preference for and perceived value of different types of VA interventions to improve access and quality.  The survey will enroll from 2,500 to 3,200 women veterans across the nation, including equal numbers of VA users and nonusers.  The final report will be submitted by December 31, 2008.  The initial funding award was for $870,400. 

What outreach efforts are being conducted by VA to women veterans?

We continue to outreach to the women veterans’ community with increased emphasis with our partnerships with federal, state, and country agencies, national veterans service organizations and community organizations.  To enhance collaboration and better serve our women veterans, appointed advisors and ex-officio representatives from HHS, DoL, DoD, and VA Administrations (VHA, VBA and NCA) serve on the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.  The Center’s Director, Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris serves as an ex-officio member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).  In this role, she ensures that DoD and VA, as a team, address military and women veterans’ health and benefits issues.

The 2004 Advisory for Women Veterans Report recommended that brochures and outreach materials that are currently only available in English be translated in Spanish.  VA has distributed brochures, pamphlets, fact sheets, and booklets in Spanish from VHA, VBA and NCA.  Numerous benefit fact sheets and other informational materials, printed in Spanish, are available on VA’s Internet web site at www.va.gov.

The Advisory Committee on Women Veterans plans to participate in the 2008 National Summit on Women Veterans Issues to be held in Washington, DC during June 2008 and to facilitate a town hall meeting to better serve our women veterans.

The Advisory Committee on Women Veterans is grateful to the VA and the Center for Women Veterans on their vision and professional efforts to take care of our women veterans of yesterday, today, and the future.

This concludes my formal testimony.  I will be pleased to answer any questions.