VA must do more to meet the needs of minority veterans, lawmakers and advocates say

Abbie Bennett
February 11, 2020 - 4:58 pm

Photo courtesy IAVA

Staff Sgt. Herman A. Day fought in the Italian campaign of World War II, assigned to the 92nd Infantry, “the colored division.” He was a Buffalo Soldier.

Reports at the time cited the division for poor combat performance, low morale and malingering. The division was considered of inferior quality by both German and U.S. commands, according to those reports. The 92nd Division’s commander advised the Army against ever again using African American soldiers as combat troops. 

But now, historians have taken a second look at the combat records of Day and the other members of his division, as concurrent reports of its honorable performance continue to surface, Melissa Bryant, national legislative director for the American Legion, former Army captain and Iraq combat veteran, told members of Congress Tuesday. 

Veterans of the division believe reports of poor performance were motivated by “racist sentiment present within senior officer ranks” and some still seek to suppress the truth of the division’s honorable conduct, Bryant said. 

Day was killed in action in Italy 75 years ago on Feb. 10, 1945, she said. He was her grandfather.

“I never got the opportunity to ask him about the racial prejudices he faced during his service, but it is well documented what he endured,” Bryant said. 

Despite a presidential executive order to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, “the stain on U.S. military history lives on and reflects the racial and ethnic biases many minorities still face when using the Veterans Health Administration Services,” she told lawmakers, at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on health equity for minority veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Recent statistics show that minorities make up 22 percent of the total veteran population, or about 19 million veterans living today. That number is expected to grow to at least 35 percent racial and ethnic minorities by 2040. 

Carolyn Clancy, VA deputy undersecretary for health for discovery, education and affiliate networks, told lawmakers that preventative care and care for chronic diseases at VA is now delivered at “comparable rates” within VA compared to private-sector healthcare, “where (racial) disparities are common.” 

While the delivery of services is more “equitable” at VA than in private hospitals, Clancy said minority veterans still “often lag behind health outcomes achieved by white veterans.” The gaps in health are smaller at VA than in the private sector, though, Clancy added.

One of the key factors to determine how well VA supports minority veterans is in the data collection, and VA is missing key metrics, lawmakers learned Tuesday.

Race and ethnicity data is missing for about 7 percent of veterans in VA care, Clancy said, blaming computer coding issues she said VA is working on. One of the major reasons why the data is missing is because VA staff reported being uncomfortable asking veterans for their race or ethnicity, she said. 

The solution, in part, Clancy said, is to have veterans self-report their information through surveys or, when at a VA hospital, using an iPad so staff don’t have to ask them out loud. 

Data aside, advocates say one of the greatest barriers to VA supporting minority veterans is that many don’t trust the agency.

A VA study found that the veterans most likely to trust VA are men, veterans older than 70 and white veterans. 

Women veterans, veterans younger than 30 and minority veterans -- particularly Native American, Alaskan Native, Hispanic and Latino veterans are least likely to say they trust VA. 

Lawmakers told VA they are concerned about accurately tracking minority veterans who get their care at VA facilities, how equitably they’re treated and how their overall health compares to non-minority vets. 

“Service and patriotism know no race or gender,” Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., said. “We must ensure that the (VA) is equipped to provide all those who have bravely served our great nation with equitable access to high-quality health care.” 

“In the next 25 years, America will be a majority-minority country,” Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said. “Today, minorities disproportionately serve in the U.S. military. As America changes, so too will the veteran population. So must the institution that provides their health care.” 

Brownley said VA must address its current struggles, including implicit bias of medical providers and staff to the inconsistent and incomplete data, adding that she has continued to hear reports of cultural and racial insensitivity, bias and gender-based harassment and assault from VA patients and staff.

“We know the legacies of horrors such as the Tuskegee experiments and the forced sterilization of Native women -- compounded with experiences of racial bias and culturally insensitive providers -- contribute greatly to mistrust of health systems by people of color,” she said. “It is the undoing of bias and the building of trust that VA must work towards. VA’s patients are only becoming more female and more ethnically and racially diverse.”

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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