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Female Veterans in Maine Give VA System Mixed Reviews
11/15/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Female veterans are the fastest growing segment of VA Health Care system users. But in Maine, only 20 percent of female veterans actually use the system. The American Legion is visiting 15 states to assess the overall quality of female veteran health care through its "System Worth Saving Task Force." The legion held a town hall meeting yesterday in Augusta, after a visit to the Togus VA Medical Center. Patty Wight was there.

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In recent years, health care for female veterans has been a problem for the VA, which has fielded complaints from across the country that the system has failed to provide gender-specific services and adequate privacy during exams. So, the biggest surprises at Wednesday's town hall meeting in Augusta was the common sentiment that women's VA health care in Maine is actually...pretty good.

"Much to my own surprise, I'm actually going to the VA for my gender-specific care," said Terry Moore, an Air Force veteran and the past chair of the Maine Female Veteran's Commission. "And if someone had asked me two years ago if I'd be going to the VA for my gender-specific care, the answer would be 'no.'"

Up until the Togus VA Medical Center hired a gynecological surgeon last year, many women vets had to travel two to three hours to Boston for a 30-minute gynecological procedure. And there are still some gaps in the system.

"It's a little aggravating, and I think we really need to look at specialty care," said Brenda Dearborn, who served in the Air Force, and says she's generally happy with her care at Togus. But Dearborn says she has had to travel to Boston a number of times for specialty services.

Terry Moore, the Air Force vet who does outreach, says travel is even a hardship in Maine. She's heard from female veterans in Caribou who have to travel south to Augusta for specialty care.

"And it's a four-hour drive to Togus," Moore said. "And the reason they're coming to Togus is to get an osteoperosis test, which again is a 15-minute test, well guess what? That's not the right answer."

The VA, like all health care providers in Maine, faces challenges in providing access to health care and attracting specialists. But the VA is also trying to encourage more women vets to use the system.

Jim Pineau, staff representative for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, says many women don't realize they can use VA health care.

"Because of the military culture and because of the history of the military, a lot of women veterans don't recognize themselves as veterans," Pineau said. "Whether you have to be a combat vet, or a woman who served during World War II, she might not think she's a veteran when she is."

Pineau and others suggest that more outreach is needed to target those female veterans and bring them into the system. The American Legion will issue a report to the White House and Congress based on its findings in Maine and other states.


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