Unequal Treatment of Black, Minority Veterans Triggers New VA Plan to Weed Out Disparities

by Braxton Taylor

The Department of Veterans Affairs will work in the coming months to ensure that all eligible veterans have equal access to health care services and benefits, particularly Black and other minority veterans who may have faced gaps in the past due to discrimination.

The department released a plan Wednesday to address racial and gender inequities in medical treatment and claims approval rates, which were determined by numerous internal audits and outside studies. The VA is facing a major lawsuit over those disparities.

As one of the first steps under the 2024 VA Equity Action Plan, its representatives will visit at least 15 military bases to educate transitioning service members on VA benefits and help them file claims and apply for health care.

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According to the findings of an internal review released Wednesday along with the action plan, the year following a service member’s transition to veteran status is critical for successfully filing disability claims at the VA, especially for Black veterans, who receive higher approval ratings during that period.

The internal review found that, between 2017 and 2023, Black veterans had higher rates of claims approvals than white veterans in that first year, 85%, compared with 83%. After that, however, Black veterans have lower rates than whites, 85% versus 83%.

The study also found that, while Black veterans receive disability compensation at significantly higher rates than white veterans for mental health conditions (nearly 22% compared with roughly 13%), they have slightly lower grant rates — a finding that VA researchers said means “there is still work to do.”

“It’s our job to provide every veteran with the world-class care and benefits they deserve, no matter who they are, what they look like, who they love, where they are from, or how they identify,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Wednesday. “That means investigating any disparities in VA health care and benefits and eliminating them, and that’s exactly what this new study and plan will help us do.”

In addition to traveling to installations, the department plans to update its Transition Assistance Program curriculum to improve understanding of the VA, and refresh its Solid Start program for transitioning veterans to educate them on benefits.

The VA also plans to work with veterans service organizations to engage with minorities and underserved communities.

“VA will continue to work aggressively to learn from these findings and use them to eliminate disparities in grant rates,” officials wrote. “VA will also continue to study these gaps so we can identify how best to eliminate them.”

Last February, President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring all Cabinet agencies to institute new initiatives to advance racial equity and support throughout the federal government.

In response, the VA established a new equity team to study the issue and make recommendations.

The VA’s new Equity Action Plan also calls for increasing access for all to VA services and enhancing economic security by encouraging procurement practices to support small disadvantaged businesses, women-owned small businesses, and those located in historically underutilized business zones.

In an ongoing lawsuit, former Marine and Vietnam veteran Conley Monk Jr. has alleged that the VA improperly denied his claims for disability benefits, housing assistance and education benefits for decades before reversing course in December 2020.

As part of his investigation into his denials of benefits, Monk obtained records through the Freedom of Information Act that he, attorneys and advocates say showed a “statistically significant difference” in VA claims decisions for Black veterans compared with white veterans.

The full VA 2024 Equity Action Plan can be found at the VA’s website.

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