Erin Batey’s favorite item she received after having her baby in the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System was a tiny bib that said, “My mommy’s a veteran.”
“He wears that all the time,” said the Navy veteran now living in Temple. She had her son in March using her Veteran Affairs benefits at Scott & White Hospital in Temple.
Batey recalled a day when a stranger saw the bib and said to her son, “Is your mommy a veteran?”
It confused Batey, because for a moment, she had forgotten what her son was wearing.
“Not everybody can look at me ... and know I’m a veteran,” said the mother of three.
But Batey hadn’t always used the VA for health care. In fact, she didn’t even know she was eligible for benefits until she got a job there in the student-worker program in 2010.
“Even when I went through (the Transition Assistance Program) and stuff and I discharged from the Navy (in 2005), that’s just something I didn’t pick up on or they didn’t really cover,” Batey said. “When I enrolled as a student here ... a fellow employee asked if I was enrolled here as a patient and I said I have no idea what you’re talking about. She walked me right over ... and I enrolled then. I didn’t know I could get my care here. I had no idea.”
Since 2010, the Central Texas VA has seen a 22 percent increase in the number of female veterans enrolling for benefits, said Jana O’Leary, Women Veteran Program manager.
“We have seen a steady rise in our women veteran population in the past several years and expect this number to steadily increase,” she said.
O’Leary took charge of the women’s program in 2004, when there were only about 6,000 women enrolled with the Central Texas VA. Now there are nearly 13,000, or 11.5 percent of all enrollees.
“It’s completely different than 2004 when I started and we had a clinic with two exam rooms,” O’Leary said. “We went from ‘Women come here?’ to ‘Women come here.’”
Those two exam rooms have expanded to three clinics where women receive comprehensive and gender-specific care from the same doctor.
“(It allows) better access because the wait times are less. Instead of one person taking up two slots, they are taking up one,” O’Leary said. “It’s better care for the veteran, which is the most important thing, because it’s easier to get someone in for one appointment instead of two. A lot of our veterans are coming back younger, and they have families, children, jobs — they just can’t take off all the time.”
The fastest enrolling age group for female veterans is 30 to 34 years old, she said, but the average age of women using their benefits is 45 to 49.
Need is what’s driving many women to access their benefits, said Angela Shinn, women veterans coordination for the Texas Veterans Commission.
“There’s a population of younger women getting out of the military now and they have a service-connected disability. They need treatment for those and any treatment for a service-connected disability is free at VA,” she said.
The economy, she believes, also is having an effect.
Because Texas is fairing relatively well, people are moving here in search of work, and that includes female veterans.
Approximately 8.54 percent of the total U.S. women’s veteran population resides in Texas, second to California’s 8.96 percent, according to the Texas Veterans Commission.
The additional resources available to women in Central Texas — private breast-feeding rooms, entertainment for children in waiting rooms and women-only psychiatric facilities — is simply supply meeting demand, Shinn said. It is one of the larger VA facilities.
In the past, VA services primarily supported male veterans, Shinn said.
It was only in 2011 the state created Shinn’s position.
“The Temple facility is kind of a flagship. It’s a little different, but they are initiating a lot of these programs and they are very nice.”
Deborah S. Herman, an Army veteran who left the service in 1980, said she began using the Central Texas VA in 2001 and recently moved with her doctor to the newest clinic to open.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s really improved,” said the Killeen resident. “I don’t see any reason not to go there. If you have entitlement to use it, I would encourage women to do it. It’s just part of your benefit for serving in the military, so why not?”
While more women are joining Herman and taking advantage of the VA, less than half of female veterans in the Central Texas VA’s 39-county coverage area are enrolled, O’Leary said.
To get more women enrolled, the Central Texas VA has three women veteran outreach coordinators to seek out women in the community and ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
Vivian Minns came on as an outreach coordinator in April 2011 and has sought out female veterans anywhere they may be, including Fort Hood briefings for soldiers leaving the Army to nail salons to small town employers.
Women often respond to Minns by saying they didn’t know they were entitled to benefits.
“Some women say, ‘The hospital is so big and I don’t know where I’m going.’ I’ll say, ‘Here’s my card, here’s my number. Call me before you come and I’ll meet you in the parking lot if I have to and we’ll walk in together.’”
Shinn said she also gets shocked responses from veterans when she describes the benefits available to them.
“They don’t realize how much support they actually have if they can reach out to it,” she said.
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.