Newly Passed Legislation Addresses Inequities and Barriers Women Veterans Face When Accessing VA Health Care and Benefits

By Fall 2020 M-VETS Student Advisor Jeremy Hall

Amidst—and perhaps overshadowed by—the chaos surrounding the presidential transition, President Donald Trump signed a significant veterans benefits bill into law on January 5, 2021. The more than 300-page bill, titled the “Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020,”[1] incorporated a number of separate bills intended to assist veterans who are homeless, who are students, or who have been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.[2] The bill was approved by congress in mid-December, and was presented to the President on December 24.

Among the measures included in the bill was the Deborah Sampson Act (“Act”),[3] sponsored by Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-CA), Chair of the bipartisan Women Veterans Task Force.[4] The Act, described in a press release by its sponsor as “the most comprehensive legislation for women veterans in a decade,” was designed to “help address the inequities and barriers that women veterans face when accessing [Department of Veterans Affairs] care and benefits.”[5]

The Act, named for Deborah Sampson—one of the first American women to serve in combat—seeks to correct what the bill’s sponsor described as the “second-class” treatment that the more than two million women veterans in the United States often receive.[6] The Women Veterans Task Force, which worked on the Act, sought to address challenges women veterans often face, including “longer wait times, sexual harassment by fellow veterans, staffing shortages, and facilities that fail to meet basic environment-of-care standards.”[7]

Among the Act’s provisions is a section establishing the Office of Women’s Health (“Office”) within the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), headed by the Chief Officer of Women’s Health.[8] The Office was created to centralize the VA’s efforts to evaluate and improve healthcare provided to women by the VA.[9] The Office will also develop, implement, and monitor standards of care for the provision of health care for women veterans by the VA.[10] Among the minimum standards of care is a requirement that each VA medical center and community-based outpatient clinic have one primary care provider specifically designated for women’s health.[11] The Act also seeks to improve counseling programs, newborn and child care, and emergency transportation for women veterans.[12] The Act mandates that the Chief Officer of Women’s Health submit an annual report to congress outlining steps taken to carry out these requirements, with an emphasis on access of women veterans to gender-specific services.[13]

In an attempt to address the findings of a recent survey by the Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups for Veterans (CHALENG for Veterans), the Act also requires the VA to enter into agreements with public or private entities to provide additional legal services for women veterans.[14] These agreements must be designed to focus on the following unmet needs identified by the CHALENG survey: child support, prevention of eviction and foreclosure, discharge upgrades, financial guardianship, credit counseling, and family reconciliation assistance.[15]

Another notable provision of the Act requires the VA Secretary to create a comprehensive policy to end harassment and sexual assault, including gender-based harassment, at all VA facilities.[16] The Act follows a period of increased scrutiny of the Department of Defense’s efforts to deal with sexual assault and harassment in the military.[17] For example, a VA Office of Inspector General report in 2018 “found that nearly half of [military sexual trauma]-related claims were not properly processed following [Veterans Benefits Administration] policy,” possibly resulting in “the denial of benefits to potential victims of [military sexual trauma] who could have been entitled to receive them.”[18] To combat this finding, the Deborah Sampson Act requires the VA to establish specialized teams to process claims related to military sexual trauma.[19] The Act also includes reporting requirements related to these teams.[20]

The Deborah Sampson Act—and the larger veterans benefits package—follows several years of legislative efforts by a variety of groups, including members of congress, the Women Veterans Task Force, and non-profits such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).[21] While much work remains to be done, the bill makes important strides forward to accomplish the stated mission of the Women Veterans Task Force: “to increase the visibility of the two million women who have served in the U.S. military and promote inclusivity and equitable access to comprehensive healthcare, benefits, education and economic opportunity, and other federal resources, particularly at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

[1] H.R. 7105, Pub. L. No. 116-315 (2021).

[2] See Leo Shane III, Women Veterans, Students Would See Expanded Services and Benefits Under New Law, Military Times (Jan. 5, 2021), https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2021/01/05/women-veterans-students-would-see-expanded-services-and-benefits-under-new-law.

[3] H.R. 3224.

[4] See Women Veterans Task Force, H. Comm. on Veterans Affairs, https://veterans.house.gov/women-veterans-taskforce (last visited Jan. 24, 2021).

[5] Press Release, Brownley Applauds Congressional Passage of Historic Women Veterans Legislation, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (Dec. 16, 2020), https://juliabrownley.house.gov/brownley-applauds-congressional-passage-of-historic-women-veterans-legislation.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Pub. L. No. 116-315, § 5101 (2021).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Press Release, Brownley Applauds Congressional Passage of Historic Women Veterans Legislation, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (Dec. 16, 2020), https://juliabrownley.house.gov/brownley-applauds-congressional-passage-of-historic-women-veterans-legislation.

[13] Pub. L. No. 116-315, § 5101 (2021).

[14] Id. at § 5105.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at § 5303.

[17] See, e.g., Ashley Close, Fifteen Years of Department of Defense Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Assault within the Military: The Accomplishments and Shortcomings, M-VETS (August 21, 2020), https://mvets.law.gmu.edu/2020/08/21/fifteen-years-of-department-of-defense-efforts-to-prevent-and-respond-to-sexual-assault-within-the-military-the-accomplishments-and-shortcomings (describing various efforts by the Department of Defense to address and prevent sexual assault within the military).

[18] Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Denied Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Claims Related to Military Sexual Trauma (2018); see also Leo Shane III, Report: VA May Have Mishandled Thousands of Sexual Assault Cases, Military Times (Aug. 21, 2018), https://www.militarytimes.com/veterans/2018/08/21/report-va-may-have-mishandled-thousands-of-sexual-assault-cases.

[19] Id. at § 5501. The Act defines “military sexual trauma,” with respect to a veteran, as “a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment during active military naval, or air service.” Id.

[20] Id.

[21] See IAVA Celebrates Final Congressional Passage of Deborah Sampson Act Following Years-Long Campaign¸ Iava.org (Dec. 16, 2020), https://iava.org/press_releases/iava-celebrates-final-congressional-passage-of-deborah-sampson-act-following-years-long-campaign/.