FALLS CHURCH, Virginia –
Health equality for women in service and women beneficiaries is and will remain a top priority for the Department of Defense, Seileen Mullen, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, made clear during a recent podcast.
Talking to the Army Wife Network on Nov. 30, Mullen said women have unique needs, including reproductive care and gender-specific care issues, because they differ from men in cardiovascular health, mental health, and musculoskeletal injures, among other medical issues.
"We've made that a real focus and part of my portfolio and my issue," Mullen said.
Women are the fastest growing percentage of the armed services at about 18% of the total, and women make up 4.7 million DOD beneficiaries, she pointed out.
Mullen discussed the DOD's recent focus on contraceptive and reproductive care during the podcast.
Family planning or deployment planning
She spoke about the recent directive requiring walk-in contraceptive services at military hospitals and clinics and the variety of contraceptive choices that are available through the Military Health System.
"That is very critical because you either want to plan your family or plan your deployment," Mullen said.
On Sept. 27, the Defense Health Agency issued the requirement that military hospitals and clinics offer full-scope, walk-in contraceptive services. By January 2023, DHA hospitals and clinics will specify the location and hours of operation for walk-in services, providing same-day access with no appointment or referral needed.
A 2020 RAND study that was published in 2022 informed much of the increased focus on women's health, Mullen said.
That study – the first on military women's health in 30 years – highlighted the need for women's health services "which are becoming some of the top clinical service delivery lines in the MHS," she said.
She also pointed to the DOD's memo on ensuring access to reproductive health published Oct. 20.
In that memo, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III directs the military to "conduct a comprehensive contraception education campaign to enhance service members' awareness of the resources available to them and their families, including emergency contraception."
"That education campaign will also highlight the fact that the Department of Defense has eliminated TRICARE co-pays for medical contraceptive services, including intrauterine devices," the memo states.
"We're removing that copay to make it that much easier for women in the military to get services such as IUDs and contraceptive implants," Mullen said.
She let the audience know about two mobile apps that help female service members and their families decide on family planning and deployment readiness, the Decide and Be Ready mobile app, and the Deployment Readiness Education for Service Women (DRES) mobile app, respectively.
The military is also conducting pilot programs with doulas, who help women through pregnancy and childbirth, and lactation consultants.
The websites www.health.mil and www.tricare.mil are both great sources of information on women's contraceptive and reproductive information, Mullen said.
Empowerment is key
The podcaster asked Mullen what empowerment means to her, a question she asks every guest.
"Empowerment is autonomy," Mullen responded. "I think we are each capable, fully realized human beings who know what's best for ourselves and the best decisions for ourselves and for our families.
"I believe we should be allowed as often, and as frequently as possible, to express autonomy," she added. "We are people who are smart. We know what we would like."