By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
7:12 PM EDT, March 24, 2013
When retired Master Sgt. Sheryl A. Webb left the U.S. Army in 1997, she was scarcely aware of services that U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals offered specifically for women.
That was well before women became the fastest growing demographic group within the U.S. veteran population, and before VA hospital officials made a concerted effort to get the word out about its women's services.
On Friday, Webb marveled as she walked through the Women Veteran's Clinic inside the new $4.7 million Fort Meade VA Outpatient clinic.
The 13,300-square-foot Fort Meade outpatient clinic, the sixth community based health facility in the VA Maryland Health Care System, officially opened its women's clinic on Friday. The overall clinic is slated to be dedicated Monday, and will provide local health services to more than 80,000 veterans living in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, officials said.
The clinic provides veterans with outpatient medical care, preventive health and education services, screenings, social work and mental health clinics, as well as referrals to specialized programs and inpatient services.
It's slated to join the other five Maryland facilities in providing three-dimensional mammogram screenings — the VA system is the first in the state to offer such mammograms and the first VA system in the country to provide the technology to veterans, officials said.
The women's clinic is also slated to provide such services as infertility treatments, fibroid testing, menopausal care and osteoporosis care.
"When I first got out and filed for VA compensation, I had to go before a board of doctors, and there was nothing set up per se, like this area here," said Webb, 69, of Elkridge, noting the facilities inside the women's clinic at Fort Meade. "There weren't places specifically for women to come in and be seen and talk to a bunch of women (about) problems pertinent to women.
"I know some of my soldiers had issues and weren't comfortable" about speaking on the matters to men, Webb said, adding that sometimes the issues were psychological in nature.
The VA actually created its Women Veterans Health Program in 1988. At that time, however, only 4.4 percent of veterans were women, VA officials said. As of 2011, women make up 10 percent (2.2 million) of the veteran population, according officials using its most recent figures available.
Women make up nearly 11.6 percent of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, VA officials said, and he number of women veterans is expected to grow to about 15 percent by 2035, according to a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rebecca Gonzalez, women's health nurse practitioner for the VA Maryland Health Care System, said spreading the word about women's services can be a challenge.
"A lot of veteran women don't know that there is women's health care available, and there's been a great push in the last six years to get that message out," Gonzalez said. "Not that it didn't happen before, but especially in the last six years or so, because there have been more of an influx of women veterans coming to the fore. We want to make sure we've got everything available to them."
Gonzalez said, currently, there are two models of care women can access via the VA: They can have either one provider performing gender-specific care as well as primary care, or they can have one doctor for each discipline.
Dr. Martin Garcia-Bunuel, a VA Maryland Health Care System primary care physician, said the VA system now actively recruits doctors, nurse practitioners and staff that have background and interest in providing care to both genders.
"Especially from a clinical perspective and a primary care perspective, we have shifted our recruiting and specifically look for primary care providers that have … training and expertise in taking care of women, Garcia-Bunuel said. "We've been looking at this for quite a few years.
He said over the past five to 10 years, the VA has looked, "very specifically at everything from our facilities to how we set up our clinics for privacy to be warm and friendly to female veterans. ... Now it's just the standard of what we do."
Gonzalez said as the female veteran population grows, and the nation as a whole grows accustomed to the idea of women veterans, medical services for women veterans will become more prevalent.
"A lot of the time people don't put together in their minds 'veteran' and 'women,'" Gonzalez said. "Usually when they say the word, 'veteran,' they think of a man. I go out and say, 'I'm a women's health nurse practitioner at the VA Medical Center,' and the general public is like, 'Really?' And I say, 'Yes, there are women veterans.'"
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