Politics

The VA’s new mission: improve health of pregnant military veterans

A new law will pump $15 million into maternity care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.

WASHINGTON — After 20 years and nine deployments in the US Army, Vivian Richards knows the importance of preparation.

“Preparedness is the number one concern of any military leader,” Richards told NBC News. “Do we have the personnel trained to the level necessary to go out and execute these combat missions?”

In 2010, she took on a new mission: motherhood.

But when it came time to deliver her baby while she was on active duty, the military health care system seemed anything but ready, Richards said.

A shortage of staffing obstetricians and gynecologists, midwives and neonatal nurses at the military treatment facilities where Richards was due to give birth meant that she did not meet her delivery team until she arrived at the hospital. The entire process made her feel like she had little control over her own health and that the military health care system for pregnant veterans lacked empathy, Richards said.

But in November, President Joe Biden signed legislation that will pump $15 million into maternity care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. The changes will include more staff and a comprehensive study of maternal mortality among veterans.

The Protecting Mothers Who Served Act of 2021 requires the Government Accountability Office to report on maternal mortality and serious maternal morbidity among pregnant and postpartum veterans, with a focus on racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes of maternal health for veterans.

NBC News sought a response from the medical facility where Richards had her baby, but she has not received one from her.

Changes will be a long time coming, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, a combat veteran and a co-sponsor of the legislation.

“As we’ve gotten more women into higher levels of leadership, this becomes an issue,” Duckworth said. “And I was able to mention this because I have my lived experience.”

Duckworth made headlines for her own pregnancy in 2018, as the first US senator to give birth while she was in office. Soon after, Duckworth made history again as the first senator to vote with her baby, Maile, by her side.

“My VA was really good. I was provided with breast pumps six months before my baby was born,” said Duckworth. “But if you’re a veteran woman living on tribal land or somewhere more rural, you have some real challenges. So my bill would really provide some funding to coordinate the full range of where we find our veterans.”

But it’s more than just finding veterans and meeting them where they are. For Duckworth, she is also retaining a substantial part of the military workforce. Women made up 17 percent of active duty military members in 2020, according to the Department of Defense.

“A lot of women choose to go and become mothers and start their families and leave the military,” Duckworth said. “That’s millions and millions of dollars of training going out the door.”

Duckworth worked on the legislation with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill. and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida.

Richards said the legislation sheds light on her experience and those who will serve after her.

“There’s a lot of commercials and media attention when a parent comes home,” Richards said. “There isn’t a lot of coverage of a mother leaving a 6-month-old baby and then coming back with a baby who is now walking and talking.”

“I think the best thing we can do for women veterans is not just bills, like the one Senator Duckworth signed, but really consider what a 20-year war does to any woman trying to have a baby,” she said. Richards.

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