Melody Daniel is an NCO in the aviation unit at Camp Robinson. She enlisted 12 years ago, deployed twice to Iraq and is one of the 53-thousand women in the National Guard. In fact, about 15-percent of active duty, Guard and Reserve forces are now women.
"Within the past five years, we have seen an 80-percent increase with our female veterans who are using mental health and primary care," says Dawn West-Rosado, the Women Veterans Program Manager in Little Rock. "We have seen a 35-percent increase in the women using primary care."
As these women return home, it's putting new challenges on our VA.
"Women are comfortable here," says West-Rosado. "Most of them receive their care in the women's clinic."
The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System sees about seven thousand female patients in primary and mental health care. The top three diagnoses are hypertension, depression and PTSD.
"We have your routine medical care, but then, we are made different," says West-Rosado. "So, there are other needs that we need to address as well. You have your breast and cervical. You have your family planning. Some limited infertility evaluations. We have a gynecologist on staff at our VA. He provides comprehensive gynecological care."
"We offer digital mammography, both screening and diagnostic mammograms," says Staff Radiologist Jessica McElreath. "We offer breast ultrasound and breast MRI."
McElreath reviews about three thousand mammograms a year and has noticed a significant increase since the program added digital mammography four years ago.
"Our numbers are definitely increasing," says McElreath. "I think part of that is due to the fact that there are more female veterans and more females that are in active duty. But, I think women are using our breast center more now because we provide everything that anyone in Central Arkansas would provide at a breast center."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA outperforms the private sector in breast cancer screenings, with 87-percent of eligible women receiving mammograms in 2010. The VA has also developed programs especially designed for women wrestling with PTSD, depression, substance abuse and military sexual trauma.
"One in five women screen positive for military sexual trauma," says West-Rosado. "They have a wonderful program. They provide evidence based treatment. They've even developed a military and sexual trauma yoga group."
"I am very satisfied with my level of healthcare as a female veteran," says Melody Daniel. "They have just put so much thought into the programs that they have put in place for women."
Although there have been great strides and signs that conditions are changing for women, gender based health disparities continue to exist. A women veteran's task force recently found disparities in preventive care statistics.
For example, they found fewer women veterans received colorectal screening, depression screening and immunizations.
"What we do is use gender specific data to help us identify potential trends and then each facility looks at that trend and sees if it is actually a disparity in that facility," says West-Rosado. "If it is, we tackle it. We get a group together and ok, how can we handle this, and address this? We come up with a plan and we go for it. Within our facility, we show a very small, maybe 1-2 percent between women and men on that gender disparity report."
The biggest challenge Rosado-West still faces is building awareness of benefits and services provided by the VA and changing the stigma of a healthcare system built for men.
"We are seeing an increase in the use and an increase in enrollment. So, word is getting out," says West-Rosado. "But until we reach 100-percent, there is a gap and we need to get out there and do more."
Another interesting statistic, women veterans are still about 30-percent less likely to enroll in VHA than men. There are designated women health care providers in every community based outreach clinic in Arkansas as well as the Little Rock and North Little Rock primary care clinics.
If you are female and have served in the military, Rosado-West says contact them directly to find out if you are eligible.