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Iraq War veteran struggles to access VA care in rural area

Iraq War veteran struggles to access VA care in rural area

This story is part of DAV’s 2024 report, Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness. The report is a comprehensive assessment of the unique factors contributing to the staggering rates of suicide among women veterans and how the system charged with their mental health care can and must do better. Learn more at womenveterans.org.  

When Iraq War veteran Kim Hubers needs to go to the VA medical center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she has to drive nearly 25 miles. But what if she needs to see a specialist for one of the many health issues affecting nearly every system of her body?

“So, my neuromuscular neurologist, I have to go to Minneapolis to see him, and it’s an eight-hour round trip,” she said. “When [veterans here] need any type of specialty care, it’s Minneapolis, Omaha or Fargo. And I’ve been sent to all of them over the years for specialty care.”

The medical center closest to her is one of two in the entire state, so Hubers—the commander of DAV Chapter 1 in Sioux Falls and a volunteer benefits advocate—has heard her fair share of stories from veterans in rural areas who struggle to access VA health care.

“That’s the nature of our state,” she said. “But we matter too.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 in 4 women veterans who use VA health care services live in rural areas. There is a 20% increased risk for suicide among rural veterans, who also face a number of unique barriers in accessing care, such as health provider shortages, long distances to access specialty care and prohibitive travel expenses.

Hubers, who estimates she spent over $1,000 in travel expenses to see specialists over the course of 14 months, hasn’t been reimbursed for such expenses in years. She said the reimbursement system is cumbersome and has rarely worked for her.

She stopped using VA-supported community care after a series of long delays and poor communication. She stopped using the Vet Center for mental health care when she lost her counselor to turnover. On top of that, Hubers experienced years of being dismissed and misdiagnosed by VA providers, making medical appointments traumatic and detrimental to her health.

Hubers now relies mostly on private health care providers outside of the VA system and pays out of pocket for mental health counseling.

“It feels like a betrayal,” she said, “and it adds a lot of frustration and a lot of emotional turmoil to something that’s already hard.”

Hubers said she’s grateful for how DAV has highlighted the challenges of women veterans and advocated for meaningful change over the years. She’s hopeful that a renewed focus on mental health will lead to even more progress.

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