The Department of Veterans Affairs has formed a leadership panel to understand why veterans who belong to racial minorities are granted disability benefits at lower rates than white veterans.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday that, although the department has several offices that oversee diversity initiatives, such as an Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans and Center for Minority Veterans that provides support and services, the new Equity Team will specifically look at grant rate differences and establish policies to ensure that all veterans are treated fairly in the decision process.
"I expect that team to consider policies across VA to address these concerns, including changes in structure, training, quality control, outreach and more," McDonough said during a press conference in Washington, D.C.
The announcement follows a suit filed in November by Vietnam veteran Conley Monk Jr., a former Marine who said he was unfairly denied claims for disability benefits, housing assistance and his GI Bill education benefits for decades before he finally received compensation in 2020.
Records obtained by Monk, who is Black, showed statistically significant differences in VA claims decisions for Black veterans compared with whites -- discrimination he said dates back decades.
VA data shows that, from 2002 to 2020, nearly 30% of disability claims filed by Black veterans were denied when compared with a 24.2% rejection rate for those filed by white veterans.
According to The Associated Press, the data also showed 30.3% of claims filed by Black veterans were fully approved, while 36% of claims filed by Hispanic veterans were approved and white veterans had an approval rate of 37.1% during the time frame.
McDonough said the team will build on the diversity and inclusion initiatives started in 2021 when he took office. Those efforts are largely geared toward VA workplace equity and providing assistance to underrepresented veterans or those who belong to racial minorities.
The equity team will look specifically at the entire claims process, from outreach to filing to review to appeals, recommending policies to ensure equity across the board.
The announcement comes as President Joe Biden issued an executive order last month requiring the formation of Equity Teams across his Cabinet departments as well as other new initiatives to advance racial equity and support throughout the federal government.
"Members of underserved communities -- many of whom have endured generations of discrimination and disinvestment -- still confront significant barriers to realizing the full promise of our great Nation, and the Federal Government has a responsibility to remove these barriers," Biden wrote in the order Feb. 16.
McDonough did not give a timeline for the team to report its findings and recommendations; he said the department must provide some answers to Biden within a certain time frame to meet its obligations under the executive order.
"This is an issue we have been wrestling with ... since I arrived. Fact is, we've been trying to figure out these historic disparate outcomes for some time. We need a concerted effort from this team to not only get to the bottom of the why, but then to get to enacting policies and procedures to fix it," he said.
McDonough said the first order of business for the VA's Equity Team is to look at claims approval rates. He promised that the team will have additional assignments but didn't elaborate.
Since October, several research studies have been published showing that veterans belonging to racial minorities waited longer to access care during the COVID-19 pandemic and that White veterans received advanced therapies for COVID-19 at higher rates than Black veterans at VA health facilities.
McDonough said the VA has been tracking health inequities, and many of the studies that have been published were conducted by the department itself.
"It is something that is an ongoing driver of our research agenda, but also an ongoing effort of our program offices," McDonough said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.