In a surprise to exactly no minority vets fighting for benefits, a recent GAO report found that black veterans had the lowest approval rates among all racial and ethnic groups for their VA compensation claims.
Even with that cynicism out of the way, the numbers were pretty surprising.
The analysis, which spanned 10 years, showed that non-hispanic black veterans received claim approvals only 61% of the time vs. 75% for white veterans.
The report doesn’t offer a ton of useful suggestions, but ultimately, the GAO tasks the VA with:
- Fixing the VA’s failure to even track race and ethnicity data for vets from historically disadvantaged minorities;
- Performing a “comprehensive assessment” of the VA’s program to identify the “root causes” that could contribute to these disparities; and
- Coming up with a plan to address those issues once they figure them out.
As action plans go, it’s pretty open-ended.
So – what’s going on?
I have a few thoughts that aren’t all the darkest possible outcome. It’s important to remember that the VA itself is staffed with many of the same minority veterans who are getting denied benefits at a higher clip than their white colleagues. I don’t think (but wouldn’t rule out) a global effort to deny claims at a higher clip for black and other minority vets.
The possibility that jumps out at me as most obvious having worked in disability law, including veteran’s benefits for almost two decades are the systemic biases in our healthcare system in the first place. If there is implicit bias in our healthcare system, then black veterans are going to already be handicapped in their application based on later or absent diagnoses and more limited treatment.
For just one of many examples, a narrative review in the journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2020 found disparities for black patients with stroke, TBI, orthopedic issues and cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. The review noted fewer referrals, less access to care, more perceived bias, and less rehabilitation. All of these areas are extremely common for veterans, and a lack of solid medical history and reporting is going to make any claim harder to win.
Poorly trained C&P docs don’t help!
Maybe the VA is adding to this problem on its own – it’s also the largest healthcare organization in the Country – but it’s hard to not look at racial disparity in a systemic way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the VA isn’t about to shine a very bright light on the wide gap in treatment and healthcare my clients have had to contend with for years. These problems have only gotten worse since the VA started using hired guns for C&P exams, many of them bringing their own biases and political beliefs about military service and disability to their weak reports. I’ve personally seen “race” cited as an objective factor against a finding of service-connection on cases (for example, citing a higher incidence of obstructive sleep apnea in the African American population as a reason to reject other correlations from service). It’s always been nonsense. It’s a nonsense we’re very versed in fighting.
It’s up to all of us to keep the pressure on the VA to make sure that healthcare and benefits are awarded based on need and service. We shouldn’t have to keep saying this, but we will keep fighting until the VA runs out of excuses. Hopefully the VA takes the note and starts righting this very long-running wrong.
Rich Frankel is the managing partner of Bross & Frankel. He is a member of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars. He has focused exclusively on disability and social security benefits since 2005.
Mr. Frankel joined what is now Bross & Frankel after having watched his father struggle with disability, fighting a lengthy illness. Mr. Frankel founded the firm’s veteran’s law practice and substantially grew the social security disability practice, focusing Bross & Frankel’s ability to fight for all of the disability benefits available to his clients.
Mr. Frankel additionally fights for clients in court, obtaining frequent victories in Social Security appeals and against insurance companies in Federal court.