Transgender vets find VA tough to crack

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imageContributing blogger Monica Helms has been an activist for the transgender community since 1998 and has lived in Atlanta since 2000. She is a co-founder and president of the Transgender American Veterans Association and blogs at Trans Universe.

For the first time in the history of the Transgender American Veterans Association, a mainstream print media outlet presented the stories of transgender veterans and the problems they face.

Journalist Carol Ann Alaimo conducted more than three weeks of interviews, research and education to create a two-part, 3,500-word article on our veterans.

Alaimo, who covers the military for the Arizona Daily Star, tells me she got interested in transgender veterans after discovering the TAVA web site and reading the survey we did last year. From there, she found transgender veterans in Tucson and spoke with many of them.

I’m impressed with all the work she put into the two articles. Her articles have drawn more than 350 comments to the newspaper’s site. Some veterans argue that if we transition after serving in the military, the VA should deny us services, while others raise the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Some grasp at straws to justify discrimination and hate.

Transgender vets a hidden population

In this article, Alaimo focuses on the people she interviewed, one of them being a friend of mine, Erin Russ. She points out the problems Erin has encountered, problems we all face at one time or another. Here is a quote from Erin that made a strong point:

“This is something I think nobody wants to talk about,” said Russ, 52. “Transgender veterans basically make other people rethink their preconceived ideas of what a veteran is. We don’t just push the envelope — we crumple it up and throw it away.”

Alaimo follows with:

Mocked by strangers and often shortchanged by the veteran’s health-care system, these ex-troops say they get little of the respect accorded to those they served alongside.

One of the most compelling stories was that of Mick Andoso, a trans man who served 20 years and became a decorated Master Sgt. in the Air Force. In 1994, Master Sgt. Brenda Weichelt was named one of the service’s top airmen for her work at the military’s Defense Language Institute in California. Since then, Mick Andoso has had nothing but scorn and disrespect by many VA personnel. Transgender veterans see this as typical treatment of the VA.

VA reviewing policy against transsexual surgery

The second article has some interesting information from Alaimo, some of which has already been disseminated to our veterans, including the Boston VA policy and its comprehensive treatment in regards to transgender veterans.

Here is some of what Alaimo found in her research:

Officials at VA headquarters, given 10 business days to answer, said they couldn’t determine how many transgender patients are in the VA system nationwide.

Officials at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System — Tucson’s veterans hospital — said 48 VA patients in Southern Arizona are transsexual or have been diagnosed at some point with “gender-identity disorder,” the medical term that covers such cases.

A national advocacy group (TAVA) estimates that about 300,000 active or retired military personnel are transgender, though experts say an accurate count is impossible because many live under the radar to escape social stigma.

Alaimo then spoke with someone at the VA to ask them why the VA doesn’t follow the American Medical Association’s policy toward transsexual people.

“VA is in the process of rewriting its directive excluding gender-reassignment surgery and will be conducting a review of the evidence base on this issue,” VA spokesman Terry Jemison said. “The current policy may continue or may change, but our decision will be based on the available evidence, not on the AMA’s resolution.”

The American Medical Association said many surgeries that help transgender patients — such as removal of breasts, testicles or ovaries — are routinely covered for other patients for various medical reasons.

Denying such coverage to transgender people “represents discrimination based solely on a patient’s gender identity,” the doctors group said.

What Jemison said hit us all like a rock. The VA is actually reviewing the policy on gender reconstruction surgery? This sounds like great news, until we consider that the VA is reviewing the policy without contacting any transgender people or organizations. Both TAVA and NCTE have not been made aware of this.

In order to find out who in the VA could be doing the review, I called the man whom Alaimo spoke with, Terry Jemison, who works in the VA’s public affairs office. He returned my call the next day.

The first subject I brought up was his comments to Alaimo when she pointed out that according to the TAVA survey of 2008, 10 percent of the transgender veterans who used the VA have at one time been turned away for being trans and 25 percent have experienced disrespect by VA people. Some of those stated that their medical records were shown to people not involved in their case, a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, (HIPAA) Privacy Rule

Jemison told me those turned away may not have been qualified for VA medical service. I quickly pointed out the case of a 100 percent disabled trans man who was medically discharged, went to the D.C. facility and was turned away, only to drive 60 miles north to the Baltimore VA and receive treatment. He couldn’t respond to that.

Jemison did provide a toll-free number (800-488-8244) for the Office of Patient Care Service, telling me that if anyone had a problem, they needed to call that number. As far as TAVA is concerned, the VA needs to address the issue overall rather than addressing it one person at a time. It would make more sense to have a directive pertaining to our veterans.

Then I brought up the policy review. Jemison said people doing the review would be in the same Office of Patient Care Services and offered to pass along my name and contact information to them.

To see what I would get by dialing the toll-free number, I called only to hear a series of options. I could not determine what option our people had to use in order to file a complaint, but I could have missed it. I also tried a few more calls to different areas of the VA, quickly proving that attempts to find out who makes decisions in that agency is an exercise in patience and futility. All we want to do is identify who we need to work with for the VA’s review.

But if I learned anything in the Navy, it’s that you have to have a backup plan. Right now, two of my friends will soon approach their friends in Congress who work in veteran issues to see if they can schedule a meeting with the VA officials involved in reviewing the transgender veterans’ health care. The ball is rolling and is in the VA’s court. The story doesn’t end here, by all means.

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