By Jonathan Kaupanger
Could it be that just a third of eligible minority veterans use any VA benefits of services? The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Minority Veterans believes that could be the case, though admits too few statistics exist to say for sure.
The results of a study published in March, says Center Director Barbara Ward, indicate many of the estimated five million minority veterans are wary of seeking help from the VA. The research analyzed data available was from 2005 to 2014.
“There are trust issues for minority veterans across the board,” said Ward. “And that’s historical. It goes back to some of the research studies that were unethical like the Tuskegee Experiment that was done with syphilis and so that still rings true for many veterans. They just don’t trust healthcare systems in general, and that’s not unique to the VA, but it’s also common in private industry.”
A bad reputation has not helped the VA either. Ke, a six year Army veteran is now living in West Virginia. The former soldier, of Asian ethnicity, says she doesn’t use the VA for her medical needs “because I don’t trust the doctors there.” While in the Army, Ke worked at a military hospital on Fort Polk, Louisiana. “It didn’t matter who you were, you were told by the administration [at Ft. Polk] to help people,” she said. “When I first came to the VA hospital to get my ID card, they were so rude and I couldn’t imagine getting treated there.”
It is useful to note only 41 percent of all eligible veterans use any sort of VA benefit. Among those who do, 51% of non-minority veterans use some form of VA healthcare. Analysis of the data reported in March indicate that among minority veterans that number drops to just 14%.
Ward can’t be certain, though, that service use by minority veterans isn’t higher, because when vets register for service, or fill out VA questionnaires, they are given the option, but not required, to note race and ethnicity. Many, Ward says, decline to offer that information — suspicious of what the VA will do with the data. In a recent pilot survey, one Vietnam veteran refused to respond. His reason: because race had been used in the past to track people and to keep track of them.
Working with the VA’s Veterans Experience Office, Ward is trying to convince more minority veterans to answer those questions — telling them the collected data could lead to better care. She tells minority veterans, for instance, that such data can help determine the merit of a particular Veteran’s claim that race or ethnicity played a role in approval or disapproval of a request for benefits.
Being able to compare outcomes in the cases of a large number of minority veterans, notes Ward, can help “if I say I’m receiving a lot of complaints from minority veterans because they think their disability ratings for a certain type of condition is significantly lower…” The Veterans Benefits Administration, which determines benefit levels, does not presently collect race and ethnicity data. “So when minority veterans complain about anything and you think it’s a significant issue, I can’t defend it,” stated Ward. “I can’t say it’s valid, I can’t say it’s invalid because you can’t do it without data.”