Improving Access to Veterans Affairs
Health Care Services for Women Veterans

Today, there are nearly 2 million female veterans, with 550,000 of these women utilizing Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services. Despite only 1 in 10 veterans being a woman, women make up 30 percent of all new VHA patients and are the fastest growing group of veterans using Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) services. This number is expected to continue to rise, with the total percentage of female veterans likely to increase by more than 80 percent by 2040. This growth presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the VHA as it works to address this shift in demographics. 

So, how does a system that was originally designed to serve men transition to one that also welcomes and meets the unique needs of our nation’s women veterans — both today and for future generations? This question has been the central focus as the VHA strives to build a culture of respect and offer resources and services that address challenges faced by female veterans as a result of their military service — which can include musculoskeletal issues, chronic pain, PTSD, and military sexual trauma (MST). In seeking to better serve these female veterans, what better way to learn how to do so than by asking these women themselves — both those who receive medical care from the VA and those who don’t?

Altarum has led the way on this effort. In 2015, we conducted an independent comprehensive survey of more than 8,400 female veterans to determine and measure the barriers they face to receiving VA care from the VHA Office of Women’s Health. As one of the nation’s leading survey providers, we facilitated the full survey life cycle — assembling the sample, fielding the survey, analyzing and interpreting data, and presenting our findings via a final report titled “Study of Barriers for Women Veterans to VA Health Care.” Prior to publishing the study results, we briefed the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans on our recommendations to Congress.

Altarum’s study was considered highly impactful in identifying actionable areas for improvements in VA health care for women. Our findings were used to support the policy that women-specific care, such as Pap smears and breast exams, be offered as routine primary care at all VA sites. This policy resulted in 85 percent of female veterans who utilize the VA being assigned designated Women’s Health Primary Care providers. 

Thus, when the Isakson and Roe Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 required an updated comprehensive study, the VHA Office of Women’s Health again turned to Altarum.

With support from our partners at Trilogy Federal and American Directions, we launched a one-hour survey designed to measure the barriers women veterans face in receiving health care from the VA. We expect a total of 7,200 women from across the nation to complete this survey — the results of which will be analyzed and compared to the 2015 results. New areas of focus include provider availability and telehealth access to mental health care services, perceptions of and satisfaction with VA integrated primary care and women’s health care, and the effects of accessing care outside of the VA. 

With an interest in adopting more gender-inclusive language, the VHA will also ask women veterans to share their perceptions of the VA motto, which quotes President Abraham Lincoln: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” The survey, which Altarum will begin fielding in March 2023, provides an opportunity for the VHA to learn from those it serves. Look for more on this survey when it concludes in September 2023.