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ANALYSIS

Should Biden pick a woman to run the VA?

In a May, 2009 photo, Tammy Duckworth, then-assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs, is sworn into federal office by Judge John J. Farley, left, U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Duckworth’s husband, Army National Guard Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey, presided over the oath. Duckworth is one of the people who is being mentioned as a possible VA secretary in the Biden administration.

DOD

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 19, 2020

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs will take the helm at a critical time for the agency.

The VA has thousands of personnel vacancies, it is dramatically expanding health care options in the private sector and telehealth, coronavirus levels are skyrocketing among patients, and the suicide epidemic shows no signs of slowing down.

Whom Biden will tap to run the VA is speculation for now. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress and former Army secretary, appears to be a strong contender.

Yet some say it is time to put a woman in charge of the nation’s largest health care network as the department shifts more resources into gender-specific health. The move would come at a time when the veteran and military communities are facing a reckoning with sexual assault and gender discrimination in the ranks and the lack of easy access to care.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif, who chairs the House veterans’ committee, said the male-dominated culture at VA needs a shakeup.

“We need a VA secretary who understands they serve an increasingly diverse veteran population ... this includes a growing number of women veterans,” Takano, who chairs the VA committee, said. “I think a female secretary of the VA ... could be a significant step to changing the culture. We need cultural changes, and that starts at the top.”

All VA secretaries going back to 1989, when the Department of Veterans Affairs was established, have been men.

Joe Chenelly, the national director for the nonpartisan advocacy group AMVETS, said whoever runs VA will need to come to the mostly thankless job equipped with the ability to run a massive bureaucracy. Female veterans’ issues need to be a focus of the next secretary, he said, and a woman running the department could give gender-specific issues some much-needed momentum.

“Women’s health will be a key issue. ... It’s best to have someone who’s already familiar with VA, someone with a proven track record of running something of magnitude. Seems like a lot of people when they come to VA really don’t know how huge and complicated it is,” he said.

Women are the fastest-growing demographic in the military, with the number using VA health care almost tripling since 2000, from 160,000 to 475,000, according to VA data. However, the department has been criticized for being slow to adapt.

While more women are relying on the VA, critics say it’s still a male-centric system, with predominantly male waiting rooms, exam areas and doctors. Some female veterans have said the lack of gender-specific care, privacy, equitable facilities and security can be barriers to seeking VA treatment.

“I see a lot of efforts that look good on paper to protect women, but they aren’t working,” according to one female policy expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Not to suggest a woman is going to solve all problems, but … it’s time to give women a shot, considering VA and military failures seem to hurt women the most.”

Some veteran advocates say the department has lagged for years on being more inclusive to women. For example, the North Texas VA Healthcare System in Dallas went without a gynecologist from February 2017 to December 2018. The Dallas area has the country’s fourth-largest population of female veterans; Texas had 181,000 female veterans, according to the VA Inspector General.

Several women have been mentioned veterans policy experts as potential good picks to be Biden’s VA secretary.

Loree Sutton, 61, is a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general. Sutton served as the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist from 2007 to 2010. She also served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services. Sutton is making her first run for public office as a long shot in the 2021 New York mayoral election.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., served in the National Guard and became the first woman double amputee of the Iraq War when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit with an RPG. She retired from the Guard as a lieutenant colonel. Duckworth, 52, served as the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2011. She was among the contenders to be Biden’s running mate. Some question whether she would give up her Senate seat for the job.

Bonnie Carroll, 63, retired as a major in the Air Force Reserve following 30 years of service, where her career included service as chief of Casualty Operations. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama and founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. Her husband, Brig. Gen.Tom Carroll, died in a military plane crash in 1992.

Nadja West, 59, was the first black surgeon general, serving from December 2015 to July 2019. West retired from the Army as a lieutenant general and is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. West has an extensive medical resume with the military including serving as a staff family physician at Fort Campbell, Ky., and as officer in charge of the Aviation Medicine Clinic. She also served as chief of dermatology service at Heidelberg Army Hospital, Germany. West then served as division surgeon of the 1st Armored Division, deploying to the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo as deputy task force surgeon. She is now a a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

beynon.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon