State becomes leader in providing care for female veterans


By: Lauren Gregory

Veterans advocate Stacey Hopwood has had too many women tell her they’ve received mail from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs addressed to a “Mr. Mary” or “Mr. Susan.”

It’s these little things that underscore that the VA’s health care system was made for men, said the retired Marine, a Clarksville, Tenn.-based claims specialist who helps fellow veterans across Middle Tennessee.

Fortunately, Ms. Hopwood said, that’s changing in Tennessee.

“We’re really blessed in this area,” she said. “We’ve had a lot more progress here than other places.”

That progress is embodied in a new comprehensive women’s health care center set to open in Nashville today, said MaryAnn Woodward-Smith, women veterans program manager for the VA’s Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, which covers Chattanooga, Nashville, Murfreesboro and the Fort Campbell/Clarksville area.


The facility is physically separate from the main VA hospital campus and is staffed entirely by women, Ms. Woodward-Smith said. It includes primary care, gynecology, mental health and substance abuse care all under one roof, she said, making it the most comprehensive VA women’s care system in the entire country.

Renovations to clinics in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga also are being planned with women in mind.

A new VA clinic is expected to open in Chattanooga by 2012, according to Dr. Gussie L. Hawkins, the current Chattanooga clinic’s chief medical officer.

Female visitors at the clinic have increased fivefold over the past seven years, according to Dr. Hawkins, and the VA is aware of that. Though Chattanooga’s new facility won’t have separate quarters for men and women, there will be a private, female-only section, and there will be an effort to recruit female providers to staff it.

In the meantime, she said, a woman can receive everything she needs either at the VA clinic or — if a certain service is unavailable there — at a private provider of her choice. In recent years, VA offerings have expanded to cover labor and delivery costs and even infertility treatments.

Nurse practitioner Zenny Fox said providers at the Chattanooga clinic are very attentive to issues that female veterans may have, ranging from military sexual trauma to child care issues.

“We spend a lot of time with them, answering their questions,” she said. “We are not in a hurry when we’re dealing with women’s care.”

Eleanor Esslinger, of East Brainerd, an Air Force veteran, said she has seen a great evolution in care at the VA over the years.

“I just think all of the doctors out there (at the Chattanooga clinic) are excellent,” she said after a recent visit to her primary care physician.

And Tennessee will continue to progress in female veteran health care if Ms. Woodward-Smith has anything to do with it.

A law passed in 1992 requires VA facilities to provide female-specific care, she said. Tennessee hired her on as women’s program manager in 1997.

Full-time women’s program managers weren’t required for every facility until December, when most states were just launching their first comprehensive evaluations of female care, Ms. Woodward-Smith said.

But Tennessee already was ahead of the game, she said, planning both the new women’s clinic in Nashville and a pilot program that would make the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System the first in the country to offer child care for its patients.

Ms. Hopwood believes Tennessee’s strong network of female veterans has helped propel the state to the head of the pack in women’s health care.

“This group has actively petitioned for a long time,” she said. “More so than getting the health care, it’s about the VA recognizing that we are veterans, too.”


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