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Clinton promises better health care, other services, for female veterans

Hillary Clinton, speaking at a rally Monday in front of the New Hampshire state house in Concord. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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Contraception and other reproductive health-care would be guaranteed to female military veterans under changes to the troubled federal veteran health and services programs that were proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday.

The Democratic front-runner would go beyond reform efforts instituted by President Obama to address the backlog in veterans’ health care that threatened lives and embarrassed the White House.

Clinton’s extensive policy plan includes several initiatives aimed at aiding female veterans, including better access to health services and child-care options. The program released on the eve of the Veterans Day also gives new prominence to  services for gay, lesbian and transgender veterans.

Women are the fastest growing population served by the Department of Veterans Affairs and should be “fully and equally supported after serving our nation,” a policy program released by Clinton’s campaign said.

The candidate will expand on her veteran program during campaign events Tuesday in New Hampshire.

She is proposing new federal funding “to ensure women equal and respectful access to health care, going beyond simply modifying facilities and increasing the number of OB-GYNs employed by the VHA.”

That includes a requirement that the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees the VA's hospitals and clinics, provide “reproductive services” across its system, Clinton’s plan says. Current reproductive health services available to women veterans include regular screenings, including for infertility, treatment of sexually-transmitted diseases and tubal ligation surgery to prevent pregnancy. The quality of those services varies across the system and services are not universally available to women veterans depending on where they live.

Clinton’s plan does not mention abortion specifically, and federal funds are currently barred for abortions in the VA system. Federal funding is also prohibited for in-vitro fertilization.

Clinton would mandate “the provision of reproductive services across the VHA to ensure women have access to the full spectrum of medical services they need.” She also promises to widen access to childcare at VA medical facilities “so that parents, particularly single mothers, don’t have to choose between taking care of their child and taking care of their health.”

The policy paper lists expanded training for health-care providers to serve women veterans and assurances of “culturally competent VHA staff and policies.” It also addresses some aspects of active-duty military service for women, gays and transgender people.

Clinton supports “welcoming women to compete for all military positions provided they meet the requisite standards, in line with the ongoing DoD policy review,” of women’s service, the paper said. “From piloting fighter jets to serving on submarines to earning respect as an Army Ranger, merit and performance should determine who serves in the military’s combat specialties and units, not gender.”

She also backs the current Pentagon policy review on transgender service, “anticipating that transgender people will soon be allowed to serve openly alongside their comrades in arms in a military where everyone is respected enough to let them serve with dignity.”

Democratic rival Martin O’Malley released his own detailed veterans’ agenda Monday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has not yet released a full program, but he includes several proposals on his campaign Web site.

Clinton said she wants to make it easier to “review and upgrade other-than-honorable discharge categorizations for service members who were improperly separated from service due to service-connected mental health and cognitive issues,” including traumatic brain injury and addiction.

Clinton has previously said she supports legislation to streamline the process to retroactively upgrade the military service records of veterans forced out of uniform because they were gay.

Her campaign said Clinton would support legislation to require VA medical facilities to meet the health-care needs of women veterans.

Clinton’s plan continues the current model of blending some private-sector health-care services with the standalone VA system, to address gaps and shortcomings in certain regions or for certain services. She firmly rejects Republican proposals to privatize VA health care.

The plan says she would “strategically purchase” private-sector care and would “present and advocate for legislation that allows the VA to pursue provider agreements to do this in the most effective and efficient manner.”

Clinton and other candidates regularly hear complaints at campaign events about the VA medical and benefits systems, particularly the long wait times for services at some VA facilities. At recent Clinton meet-the-voters events in New Hampshire and Iowa, both men and women veterans have quizzed her about what she would do to streamline and improve care.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said last week that the government’s second-largest agency is serving millions more veterans faster, but still struggling to keep up.

“The more veterans come to us for care, the harder to balance supply and demand — without additional resources,” McDonald said Friday in a speech at the National Press Club in advance of Veterans Day this week. “That kind of imbalance predicts failure in any business, public or private.”

He said VA medical staff have completed 3.1 million more appointments and hired thousands of doctors and nurses in the year since investigators found that chronic delays for medical care were being papered over by staff who manipulated patient wait times.

The scandal forced the resignation of former VA secretary Eric Shinseki and stepped up Congress’ scrutiny of the system as problems with patient care were uncovered at medical centers across the country.

_Lisa Rein and John Wagner contributed to this report.