ST. LOUIS -- Illinois' Department of Veterans Affairs sites insist they have the resources to tend to the fast-rising ranks of female veterans despite evidence of admitted shortcomings nationally.
While 5.3 million male veterans who used the VA system nationwide in fiscal year 2013 far outnumbered its 390,000 female patients, the number of women receiving care at VA has more than doubled since 2000 because of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. That surge has further strained the $44 billion VA system, despite an investment of more than $1.3 billion since 2008 on such things as training hundreds of medical professionals on dynamics of treating women.
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In Illinois, VA operations based in Marion, Danville and Chicago's Jesse Brown Medical Center said they treat a combined 8,200 female veterans, with the caseload over the past five years up 50 percent in Marion and 43 percent at Jesse Brown. The Danville VA expects its rolls of female patients to rise an additional 16 to 20 percent by 2019.
The Chicago-area's Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital didn't reply to the AP's request.
Nationally, the AP reported this month, nearly one in four VA hospitals does not have a full-time staff gynecologist, and some 140 of the 920 community-based clinics fell short of the goal that each has a designated women's health provider.
In Illinois, the Marion VA says it has a full-time gynecologist, while Jesse Brown has two part-time ones. There's a part-time gynecologist at the Danville VA and a full-time one roughly 100 miles away at the Indianapolis VA.
Jesse Brown and Danville also say they have designated women's health providers at their clinics; the Marion VA says its lone exception is Effingham clinic, where a gender-specific provider is to be in place next month.
Jenny Garretson, who oversees the women veterans' program at the Jesse Brown VA, said that site also has three female-designated primary care providers staffing the main hospital, and each clinic has one. There also are clinical pharmacists and a designated psychiatrist designated for women.
The AP also found that female veterans across the country have been placed on the VA waiting lists for new patients whose appointments cannot be scheduled in 90 days or less. Officials with the Marion, Jesse Brown and Danville VAs said they have no such lists.
"I think we are doing a good job," said Cindy James, coordinator of women veterans care in Marion, where the number of women veterans seeking treatment has tripled from 600 since she started there in 1998.
Getting a handle on it required a shift in hiring practices, she said, noting "there's historically been an issue finding (male medical staff) comfortable providing care to women" and the services they require, from pap smears to breast exams. But for the past several years at Marion, she said, serving women has been made an expectation of new hires, not an option.
"Clearly, we need to see this system up to par," said U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, a southern Illinois Democrat who once headed the Illinois National Guard. "I'm not sure if there's a short-term fix, but we certainly have to keep working it. We owe it to our veterans."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin offered a nod to Illinois' VA sites, noting each had a women's services coordinator "sensitive to this" and "trying to respond appropriately."
"We're seeing some progress, but I will be the first to add we still have a way to go," he said. "The national statistics really wave a red flag about the timeliness of treatment and the type of treatment for the women who go into the VA."