In St. Cloud, VA’s McDonough emphasizes care for growing ranks of women veterans

A man speaks from behind a podium.
Denis McDonough, United States secretary of veterans affairs, speaks to reporters after touring the St. Cloud VA Medical Center on Thursday, May 20, 2021.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough is visiting veterans facilities in his home state of Minnesota this week, highlighting the agency’s efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine and meet the needs of a changing veteran population.

The massive federal agency is facing numerous challenges, including rising health care costs and a growing demand for services for aging veterans.

At the St. Cloud VA Thursday, McDonough, originally from Stillwater, touted the regional health system’s success in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to 70 percent of its enrolled veterans and to 90 percent of those 85 and older — one of the highest rates in the nation.

McDonough said the VA is working to make the vaccine more accessible by using mobile units and offering to vaccinate spouses and caregivers of veterans. He said VA clinicians also are calling veterans to answer their questions about the vaccine.

"We're now at well over 5 million shots administered by VA,” McDonough said. “That has overwhelmingly been a safe and straightforward process that has led to so many of our veterans being able to spend time with their families.”

McDonough said the VA also is working with faith leaders and veteran service organizations to help reduce hesitancy about getting vaccinated.

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While in St. Cloud, McDonough also toured a new space dedicated to treating women veterans, who make up about 15 percent of all U.S. veterans and a quarter of those now joining the armed forces.

A woman stands in a hospital room.
Amber Willert, women veterans program manager, stands in a space at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center that was recently converted to a primary care clinic for women. VA Secretary Denis McDonough highlighted it as an example of how the VA is adapting to serve the growing number of women veterans.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"We know that the active-duty force are our veterans of tomorrow,” he said. “So we're making sure that we're ready with the kinds of services that women are right to expect."

Women veterans tend to be younger than their male counterparts, and most are under 50 years old, said Amber Willert, the women veterans program manager at the St. Cloud VA. That’s caused the VA to rethink its approach to providing health care services to women, she said.

“We're looking at people in their reproductive years and how we can meet those needs,” Willert said.

A women’s clinic was created as part of a $5 million renovation of a former dining room and kitchen on the century-old St. Cloud VA campus. The clinic includes a private waiting area and exam rooms where women can receive primary care and referrals for mental health or other types of treatment.

A picture of a room number on a wall with the words "exam room" beneath.
An exam room in the new women’s clinic at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center, on May 20, 2021.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

“It gives them a space where, if they've maybe experienced military sexual trauma or other things in the military, sometimes coming to the VA can be triggering for those past traumas,” Willert said.

McDonough said one of his top priorities is to make sure all veterans — not only women, but also veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans — receive the care they need.

“We intend to be a VA that is open to all vets,” he said.

McDonough also promoted President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which includes $18 billion to modernize VA health care facilities. 

The St. Cloud VA Medical Center opened in 1924 and is far older than most hospitals in the private health care system. It would likely be in line to receive funding if Congress approves the plan, he said.

McDonough served as chief of staff under President Barack Obama and is only the second non-veteran to lead the VA. He is scheduled to join U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith for a visit to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center Friday morning.