Eric Betts, Deseret News
Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (right) along with Steve Young, director of Salt Lake City VA Health Care Systems, discuss ways the VA is meeting the growing needs of a changing veteran population at Salt Lake City VA facilities, Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs toured the facilities of the Salt Lake City VA Tuesday, meeting with women veterans about expanded services to meet the needs of that growing part of the veteran population. 

There are estimated 16,000 women veterans in Utah. But only 3,000 of them use their benefits. The VA aims to change that, said Secretary Eric Shinsek.

He said changes can be made somewhat easily to adapt to provide care for more women in the medical facilities of the VA, but a culture change needs to happen.

"Culture is leadership," he said, "and we have taken that on to begin changing the culture."

One of the "new" faces of the changing VA is 11-week-old Alicia New — the first baby born at the VA prenatal and maternity care program. Her mother, Tammy New, is part of an early wave of women veterans who will find expanded care tailored to their needs.

At first, New and her husband, Caleb, were apprehensive about maternity care at the VA. “What is the VA going to know about pregnant women is what I thought,” he said.

They found out and they were pleased.

“I have the utmost confidence in the VA,” Tammy News said.

The VA Women Veterans Clinic at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center is changing a lot of minds. Women now make up 15 percent of America's active and reserve troops. When they join the ranks of veterans, medical care is what they need.

"VA Services are services they have earned just along with the men, and maternity care services are along with that package," said Women Veterans Program Director Gina Painter.

Over the past four years, it has cared for 56 pregnant veterans, and over the past five months, 27 pregnant women came to the clinic to receive services.

"I had no idea (I had these benefits),” said Army Reserves veteran Clerie Staten. “I thought maybe they were confused, and I thought maybe it was something I wasn't supposed to receive. The more I looked into it, the more pleased I was."

Shinseki also addressed the VA's plans to adapt to the growing needs of a new generation of veterans who went to battle after 9/11.

Among the secretary's ambitious goals is to eliminate homelessness among vets by 2015. "Addressing those needs today is primarily a rescue mission,” Shinseki said. “It's getting people who are currently homeless off the streets. But it also means we have to be better at prevention, and prevention is a larger, more long-term issue."

Between January 2010 and January 2011, the homeless count dropped by 12 percent, he said. Part of that success, Shinseki said, is due to the VA’s partnerships with local nonprofits that tackle homelessness in communities.

E-mail: [email protected]