The Department of Veterans Affairs has a new team and office responsible for helping it address health and benefits inequities among veterans as a result of racial, sex or gender discrimination.
VA officials announced Friday that the agency's new equity team, directed as part of an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in February to address disparities across the federal government, will be responsible for helping "improve outcomes for historically underserved veterans" by creating and implementing a VA Equity Action Plan.
The panel, dubbed the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Council, or I*DEA, also will strive to address disparities in recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention of VA employees, according to a department press release.
In addition, the VA has created a new equity assurance office in the Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA, that will work with the council to eliminate disparities in benefits decisions, including disability compensation and housing and education benefits.
The department already has several offices that oversee diversity initiatives, including the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans and the Center for Minority Veterans, which were created to provide ideas on policies to assist minority veterans and offer them support and improved access to health care and benefits.
But the I*DEA Council and equity assurance office will look specifically at inequities in providing benefits and establish policies to ensure that all veterans are treated fairly.
"This new agency equity team will help us deliver on that promise, making sure that we provide every veteran with the world-class care and benefits they deserve -- no matter their age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or sexual identity," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. "The team's first order of business will be identifying any disparities in VA health care and benefits and eliminating them."
A lawsuit filed last November in Connecticut alleges that the department has discriminated against Black veterans for decades.
Vietnam veteran and former Marine Conley Monk Jr. filed the suit, saying he was wrongly denied disability benefits, housing assistance and his GI Bill education benefits for decades as a result of his skin color.
Although he finally received compensation in 2020, Monk found that, statistically, claims decisions for Black veterans were denied at a rate nearly 6 percentage points higher than rates for Caucasian vets -- discrimination he said that dates back decades.
According to The Associated Press, VA 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.
The VA released data Friday to counter the statistics Monk has cited. According to the department, it is "delivering disability benefits to a higher percentage of Black veterans than White veterans," 10.5% vs. 6.6% for post-traumatic stress disorder; 18.7% vs. 11.2% for mental health conditions; and 36.5% vs. 28.4% for all conditions.
VA officials noted that Black veterans have lower grant rates for disability claims -- 65% versus 75% for white veterans for post-traumatic stress; 69.3% versus 75.4% for all mental health conditions; and 84.8% compared to 89.4% for all conditions -- but noted that Black veterans apply for disability benefits at higher rates than their white counterparts.
"On average, Black veterans receive slightly higher disability ratings from VA than white veterans (65.7% vs. 62.2% for post-traumatic stress, 80% vs. 78% for all mental health conditions, and 68% vs. 58% for all conditions)," VA officials said. "This means that the average yearly benefits payment is slightly higher for Black veterans than their white counterparts ($37,591 vs $34,763 for post-traumatic stress, $36,563 vs. $33,321 for all mental health conditions, and $27,446 vs. $21,867 for all conditions)."
Nonetheless, McDonough said the department's mission is to serve all veterans, families, caregivers and survivors, and the two new administrative bodies will work to "eliminate any disparities in the delivery of earned benefits to veterans."
Under Secretary for Benefits Josh Jacobs and Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Gina Grosso will lead the department’s equity team initiatives for the first year, according to VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes.
According to the VA, the I*DEA council will report to the VA's deputy secretary. VA Assistant Secretary for Enterprise Integration Guy Kiyokawa is currently acting in the role, while Tanya Bradsher awaits a vote on her nomination in the Senate.
The VBA's Equity Assurance Office will be led by Laurine Carson, a 31-year employee of the department who currently serves as deputy executive director for policy and procedures in the VBA's Compensation Service. She will report to the Office of the Under Secretary for Benefits.
In his Feb. 16 executive order, Biden required all Cabinet departments to form equity teams and institute new initiatives to advance racial equity and support throughout the federal government.
Biden said it is the federal government's "responsibility to remove barriers" for those who historically have been discriminated against.
"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," Biden wrote.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.