Racial Disparities in VA Benefit Awards: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Responses

The Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] no longer disputes the existence of racial disparities when awarding benefits or providing healthcare. On March 23, 2023, VA Secretary Denis McDonough, when directly questioned about the inequitable awarding of benefits responded, “I promise you this: we’re actively looking into any disparities that exist at VA, and we’re going to eliminate them.”1 The changes Secretary McDonough promises are driven by a powerful combination of executive action, bi-partisan legislation, and Pro Bono litigation.  

On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.2 This EO directed federal agencies to “assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups”.3 On April 14, 2022, the Department of Veteran Affairs released its Equity Action Plan in response to the EO.4  

Months after EO 13985 was issued, Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock introduced Public Law 117-66, which directed the Government Accountability Office to assess the racial/ethnic disparities in the administration of VA compensation benefits, disability rates, and claim rejection rates.5 The bill passed the Senate with unanimous consent and the House with bi-partisan support. The final report from the GAO is due to congress no later than July 2023. 

As the wheels of the executive and legislature creep towards identifying and addressing racial inequities at the VA, the Judiciary entered the arena in February of 2022 with Monk v. U.S., No. 3:22-cv-01503 (D. Conn. Filed Nov. 28, 2022). 6 Conley Monk Jr., a U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam Veteran, through the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, have filed a Federal Tort Claims Act against the VA for negligence in the administering of benefits “in a manner free from racial discrimination against Black veterans.”7 Based on data obtained from the VA, Monk claims between 2001 and 2020 Black veterans were consistently denied benefits at a higher rate than their white veteran counterparts. The complaint is a glaring example of the many obstacles and barriers faced by Veterans when trying to obtain benefits earned through their service to the country. Read the entire complaint here.   

As more information is revealed, one thing is clear; there are a lot of Veterans who are not receiving the benefits they earned through their service and were promised by the American people. The SALSA Veterans Legal Services program is committed to assisting Veterans obtain what is owed. If you are interested in learning more on the VA claims process visit our Veterans’ Benefits Resources Library. If you are an attorney and would like to assist us in serving our local Veterans, please sign-up for one of our bi-monthly Veterans Clinic here.  

  1. Press Conference with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, DEP’T OF VET. AFF. (Mar. 23, 2023) at https://news.va.gov/press-room/va-secretary-press-conference-march-3-2023/ (last visited Apr. 4, 2023).
  2. Exec. Order No. 13985, 86 Fed. Reg. 7009 (Jan. 20, 2021) at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2021-01-25/pdf/2021-01753.pdf (last visited Apr. 4, 2023) [hereinafter EO].
  3. Id. § 1.
  4. DEP’T OF VET. AFF., EQUITY ACTION PLAN (2022) at https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5782 (last visited Apr. 5, 2023)
  5. Pub. L. No. 117-66, 135 Stat. 1489 (2021).
  6. Monk v. U.S., No. 3:22-cv-01503 (D. Conn. filed Nov. 28, 2022).
  7. Id., at ¶ 11.

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