Disparities in Women Veterans’ Healthcare
In the United States, military veterans can access healthcare through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). While the intention of this system is to ensure access to care for those who serve, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system has not always lived up to this promise, especially for women veterans.
As the number of women serving in the military continues to grow, the VA has struggled to keep pace with their unique health needs.
The Women Veteran Population
According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), there are more than 350,000 service women and 2 million women veterans in the United States. While these numbers are the highest they have ever been, women are still the minority, and many do not make use of the government-funded benefits afforded to veterans.
- According to the VA, women currently make up 10% of the U.S. veteran population.
- Approximately 159,810 women used veteran health services in 2000 (PDF, 8.1 MB). This number has increased significantly, with 500,000 women veterans utilizing VHA benefits in 2019 (PDF, 54 KB).
- However, despite this increase, women make up only 8% of all users of healthcare at the VA.
The number of women veterans who used their VA benefits to access healthcare tripled between 2000 and 2019.
Barriers to Access for Women Veterans
Women veterans’ hesitancy to use VA services can be attributed to multiple factors, said SWAN Director of Government Relations Lory Manning. Reasons for opting out of VA benefits may include challenges accessing VA facilities because of location, the overall lack of gender-specific services provided, and disparities caused by existing funding policies for women’s health services.
Access to Care
VA facilities are currently not equipped to provide services to women veterans in some areas, such as reproductive health. Instead, the VA contracts with civilian facilities and providers to cover these areas of care.
Additionally, there may not be a VA facility close to the individual’s home, requiring her to travel further for healthcare if she chooses to utilize VA benefits. While this is a challenge for many veterans regardless of gender, Manning explained that this can be even more of an inconvenience for women veterans.
For example, if a woman veteran goes in for a routine checkup that requires additional services, she may have to make more than one trip.
“Most VA hospitals don’t do enough mammograms to [have a full-time certified technician], so they have to contract that out,” Manning said. “If you come in for a physical, but they can’t get you an appointment for a mammogram that day, then you have to go home and drive [a far distance to] come back.”
While men and women veterans may experience some of the same health issues, they often experience them differently; this is a topic the Disabled American Veterans nonprofit charity (DAV) has highlighted while assisting veterans with benefit claims.
For example, a DAV report on health challenges faced by veteran women (PDF, 2.8 MB). indicates the following about women who require prosthetics: “Women veterans frequently have difficulty obtaining prosthetics designed for their unique anatomy, are more likely to experience certain reactions or rejections of devices, and have additional challenges to the proper fit and function of their prosthetics due to monthly body changes and pregnancies.”
Additionally, women veterans seeking help for issues such as mental health or substance use — often linked to post-traumatic stress disorder — may want to participate in women-only support groups, which Manning said are not always available through the VA.
Such requests for gender-specific care may be due in part to larger cultural issues experienced by service women during and after their time in the military.
Funding Issues for Women’s Health
To keep pace with the growing number of women in the military, the VA has had to adjust policies to cover women’s health issues, such as those related to reproductive health. While progress has been made, Manning said that there are still some strict rulings around women’s health.
For example, there has been ongoing debate over the funding of infertility treatment through VA benefits. Currently, the VA does provide some coverage for certain infertility treatments, but there are limits on the number of treatment cycles and other factors that may prevent an individual from receiving care through the VA.
Other strict limitations may pose challenges for women who give birth to a child who requires additional care, such as a stay in a neonatal unit; newborns are only covered for seven days through VA benefits for women veterans (PDF, 692 KB).
“These are brand-new human beings, and if their mother was getting her healthcare through VA, she probably doesn’t have [additional] insurance,” Manning said.
Addressing the Needs of Women Veterans
According to the DAV report on health challenges faced by veteran women (PDF, 2.8 MB), there are key areas the VA should focus on to improve its women’s health services.
Comprehensive primary care: DAV recommends that women’s primary care and gender-sensitive healthcare should be foundational services within every VA facility.
Mental health: Gender differences for issues such as suicide risk need to be identified, says the DAV. The report additionally encourages more routine screening for mental health conditions and improved access to evidence-based treatments, specifically for women veterans.
Homelessness: Women veterans are more likely to have certain critical risk factors for homelessness, including a higher likelihood of being divorced, custody of a child, and a lower median income. DAV recommends government interventions to provide additional support to women veterans at risk for homelessness, such as providing short-term vouchers for childcare expenses and coordinating with community agencies that provide shelter for women and children.
Prosthetics: Women veterans have unique anatomical needs for prosthetics. DAV suggests that the VA explore technologies such as 3D printing to provide higher quality prosthetics for women veterans.
Reproductive health: Because reproductive healthcare is most often provided through community providers rather than VA facilities, DAV recommends that the VA should take care to confirm that these partners meet quality and timeliness standards for women’s healthcare.
Resources and Organizations for Women Veterans
Women veterans, as well as their family members and friends, can access the following resources for more information and support services.
American Women Veterans Foundation
AWV is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “serving, honoring, and empowering military women, veterans, and their families.” The foundation aims to advocate for new or improved policies; raise awareness about women’s contributions to the military; and offer resources for education, housing, employment, and more.
Active Duty and Veteran Women’s Health | Office on Women’s Health
Run by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, this resource page covers the topic of women’s health for veterans and those currently serving in the military. Content includes videos and articles on various topics related to the unique health needs of service women.
How Does HHS Support Military Families?
HHS provides resources related to a variety of topics including employment, health, mental health and substance use, and other issues faced by military families.
Service Women’s Action Network
SWAN is a community network and advocacy group that focuses on supporting service women and veterans. Their website includes a variety of resources, research, programs, and ways to get involved in advocacy work.
Women Veterans Health Care | Department of Veterans Affairs
The Department of Veterans Affairs website provides information and resources specific to women’s health for individuals who are interested in or currently use VA health benefits.
Women Veterans: The Journey Ahead | Disabled American Veterans
A mini site created by DAV, this resource includes the organization’s full report on women veterans’ health, bios on women veterans involved in the creation of the report, and resources for individuals who want to get involved in advocacy work related to women veterans’ health.
The following section includes tabular data from the graphics in this post.
Women Veterans Using VHA Benefits, 2000–2019 Return to link
|Year||Number of Women Veterans Who Used VHA Benefits|
Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences