Veterans Disability Info Blog

Ensuring Equitable Treatment: GAO’s Findings on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in VA Benefits

In July of 2023, the Government Accountability Office—or GAO—completed its report regarding disparities in VA disability benefit payments based on race and ethnicity. Through an extensive investigation, the GAO determined that non-Hispanic black veterans faced the lowest approval rate among all racial groups 

The report, which was titled “VA Disability Benefits—Actions Need to Further Examine Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Compensation,” was born from a long-held belief that some groups were more likely than others to have their disability claims denied. The lawyers and staff at Gang & Associates believe that every veteran deserves to be treated fairly throughout this process.

The Findings of the Report

The headline of the report issued by the GAO is that when African-American veterans petition the VA for disability benefits for a physical or mental condition, they are less likely to receive them compared to white veterans. 

The report evaluated data provided by the VA from fiscal years 2010 through 2020. At the time, it was the most recent data available. The data divided all disability benefit applicants into six groups based on their race and ethnicity. Those groups include the following:

  • American Indian / Native American
  • Asian
  • Black
  • Hispanic
  • Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander
  • White

The study found that among these six groups, black veterans were rejected at a much higher rate. Of this group, 61 percent of applicants are ultimately compensated. This is much lower compared to other groups like white (75 percent) or Asian (80 percent) vets. 

As part of the study, the GAO reviewed awards for 10 conditions covered by the VA. For nine of those conditions, African American veterans were more likely to have their claim denied compared to their white counterparts. The largest disparity was for hearing loss. While white veterans had their hearing loss claims approved 45 percent of the time, black vets were only successful with 23 percent of their claims. That 22 percent difference is the highest disparity of any of the conditions that were analyzed. Some of the other conditions with large disparities include post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines, and lumbosacral strain. 

This report is focused on the existence of a discrepancy as opposed to a specific remedy. The GAO also did not comprehensively study the potential cause of this phenomenon. The authors did speculate that the lack of access to appropriate forms or challenges related to traveling to a VA hospital or other facility could have played a part.

The Disparate Outcomes Are Not Uniform Across All Ethnic and Racial Groups 

While much of the focus of these reports was on the differences between acceptance rates for black and white veterans, it is worth noting that other groups did not face the same gap. In fact, Asian and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander veterans had a higher rate of accepted claims during that period. Black and white veterans make up the majority of servicemembers, so there are significant differences in the sample sizes of each group.

Other groups largely saw similar results compared to white veterans. For example, American Indian / Alaskan Native vets had their claims approved at a 74 percent rate. Hispanic veterans were awarded benefits 77 percent of the time, which is slightly above the rate of acceptance for white servicemembers.

The GAO Made Three Recommendations to the VA Based on this Report

At the conclusion of this report, the GAO made three distinct recommendations to the VA based on their findings. The leadership at the VA agreed with these recommendations and is reportedly taking steps to implement them.

Develop a Plan for Disadvantaged Ethnic Groups Data Collection

The first recommendation from the GAO was to develop a documented plan—including time frames—to address any limitations in the collection of data regarding disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups. This includes creating and enforcing standards for data collection that ensure compliance with federal standards and best practices. The GAO highlighted that one of the potential causes of this issue is that the failure to document this disparate treatment has made it more difficult to address any potential barriers to equal access to benefits among all groups. 

Investigate the Cause of Disparities

After improving the process of data collection, the GAO next recommends that the VA conduct a thorough assessment of the disability compensation system in order to determine any factors that might contribute to disparate outcomes between racial groups. It was recommended that this review take place either internally or by a third party. 

The VA concurred with the assessments of the GAO on this item, although it noted that there are a number of challenges to address. The VA does not dispute the disparate outcomes for disability benefits but also points to other factors that could contribute to the higher rejection rate for black veterans. This includes the fact that a higher percentage of black veterans apply for benefits compared to white service members.

Create a Plan to Address Any Disparities

At the conclusion of the investigative stage, the GAO recommends that the VA develop a plan to address any root causes of racial or ethnic disparities. The specific nature of this play will depend on the outcome of the VA’s assessments of the underlying issues. This step is likely to take years to be resolved, but the VA has concurred with the need for action and promised the GAO that it has plans to implement changes based on the results of its assessment.

Who is the GAO? 

The GAO is an independent government agency tasked with auditing and investigating government services funded with taxpayer money. Unlike most watchdog groups, the GAO is a nonpartisan agency within the legislative branch. It is considered by some to be the most important auditor within the federal government, with core missions of accountability, integrity, and reliability. 

The Comptroller General of the United States is tasked with heading this agency. They are appointed by the president for 15-year terms, and they must be confirmed by the United States Senate. Whenever a vacancy arises, Congress creates a commission tasked with providing names to the President.  

Why GAO Performed This Study

The study performed by the GAO after being directed to do so through an act of Congress. On November 30, 2021, Public Law 117-66 was approved and signed by the President. The act formally required the “Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on disparities associated with race and ethnicity with respect to certain benefits administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” 

The GAO was given two specific tasks for this study. First, the act requires that they identify whether racial and ethnic disparities exist when it comes to VA disability benefit compensation. Second, they were also tasked with determining what steps—if any—the VA took to collect data regarding the racial and ethnic composition of disability applicants. 

The GAO reviewed a wide range of sources before making this report, including federal law and VA policies. They also analyzed claims data by race, sex, and ethnicity for the ten previous fiscal years. Their efforts also included extensive interviews with officials and representatives within the VA as well as external advisory groups and service organizations.

The History of Anti-Black Discrimination and the VA

There is a long, unfortunate history of disparate treatment of African American veterans by the VA. In the aftermath of World War II, congress enacted the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Also known as the G.I. Bill, this act was designed to provide numerous financial benefits for veterans as they returned home from the war. It covered the cost of vocational education, paid tuition for college students, and offered low-cost mortgages for home buyers. 

The benefits offered by the G.I. Bill were life-altering for many veterans, but African American service members were often left out. This is especially true when it comes to the program that provides low-cost mortgages. 

In theory, this program was available for all veterans regardless of their race and ethnicity. In practice, it was a discriminatory program that would not approve loans for homes in black neighborhoods. This history of disparate treatment fuels the scrutiny that the VA currently faces in their handling of disability benefits.

Gang & Associates is Ready to Fight for You

Despite the history of disparate and unfair treatment among veterans in disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups, there are more resources than ever for obtaining the benefits you deserve. At Gang & Associates, we are proud to assist veterans with securing the best possible outcome in their search for compensation. 

If your claim has been denied, our team of lawyers and legal professionals is ready to help. We can assist you with the appeals process, and we will work tirelessly to make the strongest disability case possible. Contact us as soon as possible to discuss your options. 

We are Here to Help

If you are having trouble obtaining benefits, contact us online or at 888.878.9350 to discuss your case.