The Department of Veterans Affairs is working on a study focused on racial disparities in its benefits claims decisions — an issue that spans decades, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
“The kind of data that we’ve been looking into is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable to the president.” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Thursday.
A lawsuit filed Monday with the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, and led by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Service Clinic, claims that between 2001 and 2020, the VA was more likely to reject the disability compensation claims of black veterans than white veterans.
The data supporting the lawsuit stems from VA data provided by Freedom of Information Act requests.
“The result of VA’s racial discrimination has been to deny countless meritorious applications by Black veterans, depriving them and their families of care and support that their faithful service had earned,” the lawsuit states.
Yale Law School filed the lawsuit on behalf of Conley Monk, Jr., a Vietnam veteran whose applications for education, housing and disability compensation were initially denied by the VA. The agency eventually granted his claims in 2015 and 2020.
“VA has never fully compensated him for the harm it caused by repeatedly denying his benefits applications,” the lawsuit states.
McDonough said the VA will publish the results of its study once it concludes, but he said he did not yet have a timeline for the study’s public release.
“This is an issue that we’ve been pressing on with some urgency now for some time, but we’re also not waiting for the conclusion of that study to take action,” McDonough said.
VA’s Center for Minority Veterans has begun to participate in Veteran Experience Action Centers, which work one-on-one with minority veterans and give them personalized assistance in the claims process.
Between April and June, the latest months the VA has data, VA helped more than 650 Black vets at these events, resulting in an 80% trust score.
“We plan, obviously, to help more,” McDonough said. “Additionally, we’re taking steps to ensure that our claims process battles institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it.”
McDonough said the VA is reevaluating its policies to equitably serve veterans “wrongly given other-than-honorable discharges” from military service, and proactively reach out to veterans under this criteria to let them know they may still be able to access VA benefits and care.
The VA, meanwhile, is gearing up to begin adjudicating PACT Act claims at the start of 2023.
The agency, to date, has received 165,000 PACT Act claims. McDonough said the VA will spend longer adjudicating some cases.
“It’s difficult, until we dig into each of the cases, to know how quickly we can resolve. Some cases will be resolved in days, some in weeks, some in months,” he said. “Some will be resolved quickly, some will take longer.”
McDonough said the VA will remain in close contact with veterans as they file, “so that they’re not wondering what’s happening” with their claim.
The agency is also changing its rules to allow for partial payment on claims.
“Say, for example, a veteran files a package that has up to 10 claims, and we can resolve three quickly, but the remaining will take some additional time. We will make that initial ruling, begin paying those benefits immediately, and then go back to working on the rest of the claims,” McDonough said.
The change will go into effect when the VA begins to adjudicate PACT Act claims in January.
McDonough said the VA has been “aggressively hiring” to build up the VA workforce it needs to handle a surge in PACT Act claims. He said the VA hired a record 48,500 new clinical administrative staff in fiscal 2022, an increase of more than 5,00 staff from fiscal 2021.
VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said the VA is on track to set a new record for hiring at the Veterans Health Administration for the first quarter of fiscal 2023, and is reducing critical vacancies.
McDonough said the VA has begun rolling out PACT Act financial award incentives to employees. VHA in November also held onboarding surge events at more than 200 facilities across the county as “part of a broad effort to hire faster” and more competitively, McDonough said.
McDonough said the VA is taking steps to address burnout in the VA workforce and make sure employees are working in positions best suited to their skill level.
“Too many of our clinicians feel like they’re not practicing where they ought to, meaning at the top of their license, because they’re operating in tight, resource-constrained areas where we don’t have too many vacancies,” he said.
McDonough said the VA is looking to enroll veterans for the benefits they qualify for, but expects the surge of claims under the PACT Act will increase the total claims backlog. The backlog, he added, will peak sometime between next August and October.
The disability claims backlog right now is at more than 151,000 cases.
“We think it will be higher than the number we see today, but I think we’ll be looking at a backlog,” McDonough said. “Our commitment is to make sure that we have the staff in position to work through those claims aggressively to resolve those claims in a quality way, and to get to payment of those benefits rapidly and transparently.”
The VA starting on Dec. 10, will host a “week of action” with more than 90 events across the country focused on maximizing veterans signing up for health care and benefits under the PACT Act.