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'Deborah Sampson Act' Aims to Provide Equitable Care to Woman Veterans at VA Hospitals

Peter Biello

During America’s Revolutionary War, a woman named Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army. She served 17 months before being wounded and honorably discharged. Today she has become a symbol of the bravery women have shown in service to our country, and she’s now the namesake of the Deborah Sampson Act, which is legislation designed to addresses gender disparities at VA hospitals. New Hampshire democratic Senator Maggie Hassan co-introduced the legislation. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

In what ways are women currently receiving inequitable care at VA hospitals?

A lot of VAs don’t have primary care or health specialists who deal with women’s health regularly. There’s a lack of privacy, and maternity and newborn care isn’t covered at the level it should be. We also know that it’s very important for women veterans to have access to appropriate peer-to-peer counseling, or counseling if they’ve been victims of sexual assault. And these are the types of services that haven’t been offered either at all or at the level they should be throughout our Veterans Administration system. So that’s what the Deborah Sampson act is intended to address.

Tell us more about what it does for women and children born at VA hospitals.

For women veterans in general, it expands peer-to-peer assistance. It improves the quality of maternity and newborn care at veterans’ hospitals. So again, for women and children, especially newborns, it ensures they can get their care through the veterans’ system. It also eliminates barriers, the lack of privacy, for instance.

It also provides legal and support services and improves data tracking and reporting. We’ve seen more and more women step up and defend their country and fight for our freedoms. Increasingly women are in combat roles and even some of the roles that have been in the past designated as not combat roles, in fact have involved women on the front lines being at great risk.

Just as we owe all our veterans an incredible debt of gratitude, we also want to make sure that all of our veterans have access to the kind of treatment that they need and deserve and that’s what this bill is aimed at doing.

One of the provisions of the bill is that Congress will express its belief that the VA’s motto, which is an Abraham Lincoln quote, should be changed. It’s currently: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” And it’s been discussed for a few years now that perhaps it should be a little more inclusive, that that phrase should be less gender-specific.

One of the speakers when we announced the introduction of this bill the other day, a woman veteran said that when she approached the doors of the VA clinic where she wanted to get her care and saw that motto, it just signaled to her that those resources really weren’t intended for her.

She also noted that you can go into VA clinics or hospitals and see pictures on the walls of men in uniform and in combat, but none of women, and it really does signal to women that they are somehow not the primary focus of the VA.

You know, women have told us stories of going up to the window to check into their appointment and having a receptionist, for instance, assume that they were the spouse of a veteran as opposed to a veteran themselves. And those communications really add up when somebody is feeling vulnerable or needs to reach out assertively for care that they know they need. They wonder whether those communications really reflect the lack of commitment or lack of expertise about the issues that they need addressed and so it’s really important that all of our VA centers have, for instance, at least a part-time women’s health specialist on board as we see more and more women stepping up to protect us all.

That’s the Deborah Sampson Act. There’s another piece of legislation that was reintroduced today and that was the VA Appeals Modernization Act. It didn’t get far last year, but the bill attempts to reform the appeals process for veterans. Senator Hassan, could you tell us a little bit about how the bill would do that?

One of things I’ve heard about loudly and clearly from veterans throughout New Hampshire is their concern about the appeals process right now. Since taking office I have visited the Manchester VA, I’ve gone up to White River Junction, I’ve visited with the State Veterans Advisory Council, and representatives of the VFW and the American Legion came to New Hampshire and we had a meeting, and this was always on the top of their list, and so the bill is really intended to make sure that we are handling appeals in a simpler way, a more transparent way, and one in which veterans can understand what their options are if they don’t have an outcome that they like or that was expected. I’m hopeful we’ll get further with this legislation in this Congress than it got the last time.

The bill also hopes to deliver a “quick resolution” to issues.

That’s right.

How would you define “quick”?

I think veterans would define it as being a reasonable amount of time after they’ve filed their applications or claims and I know that that’s something that we will have hearings on to really drill down at what that time frame should be. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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