VA makes LGBT comfort a top priority

Jonathan Kaupanger
June 05, 2018 - 12:18 pm



When it comes to providing culturally and clinically appropriate care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) vets, Veterans Affairs is basically leading the healthcare industry!

Many LGBT veterans go to Veterans Health Administration (VHA) anticipating the same kind of treatment they received in the military.  They believe that the VA has discriminatory policies in place that will make it difficult to get care. 

“That’s not true and it’s never been the case,” says Dr. Michael Kauth, who is one of VA’s two LGBT health program directors.  “The VA has never had any policies that prohibits care to LGBT veterans.  LGBT veterans believe that there’s not much of a distinction between the military and the VA and those same old military policies apply to the VA.  So we have an extra hurdle to overcome, to show LGBT veterans that we want to be their provider of choice.”

It all comes down to being comfortable with your doctor.  One of the things the VA is using to create this comfort is the Healthcare Equality Index (HEI).  This was created by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as a way for healthcare organizations to learn the best practices and how to assess themselves on the overall LBGT commitment. 

“The VA is doing very well,” says HRC’s Director, Health Equality Project Tari Hanneman.  A healthcare facility that scores a 100 receives a leader designation.  Facilities with a score of 80 to 95 are considered top performers. “84 of the 97 VA facilities that participated this year are either leaders or top performers,” says Hanneman.  The average national score is 90, but VA’s score is slightly better at 92.  

One of VA’s Leaders this year is the Sioux Falls VA Health Care System in South Dakota.  Tammy Reiff is a VA social worker there and has been working on this project for three years.  “We talk a lot about policies,” she says, adding “our policies were already in place, it was just a matter that people understood them and knew where to find them.” 

One of the things that drives Reiff is her own LGBT story.  “I had a transgender veteran I worked with for the better part of five years, until she passed away,” she recalls.  This veteran would come in weekly and according to Reiff, the VA was her safe place.  “She not only received her medical and mental health care here, she also received dignity and respect and she didn’t get that necessarily out in the community or from her family sadly enough.” 

“When she learned a new makeup technique, she would come in and we’d talk about it,” remembers Reiff.  She goes on to explain that when she’d get a new wig, she’d come in and everyone would notice it and comment on it.  But when she passed away her family put the veteran’s masculine name in the papers.  “It made me sad for her because that’s not who she was,” Reiff says. 

“I can’t guarantee that every experience will be a positive one for LGBT people, because there’s just variability in the system and sometimes people just have bad days,” says Dr. Kauth.  “But we’re working to make it uniformed across the system.  That LGBT folks wherever they get their care and whatever kind of care they get, that they get high quality service and responsive culturally appropriate care.” 

“Where we’re at, we have a great starting off point and we can get better,” Reiff says. “But when I’ve got vets who are comfortable coming in being who they are, and feeling like this is their safe place, then we’re doing it right, in my opinion.”

You can learn more about VA’s LGBT policies here


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