System to help VA track minority vets

The Department of Veterans Affairs has developed a database system to track how well the agency serves minority and women veterans in an effort to ensure that these groups do not miss out on any VA benefits or programs.

The agency has been working for nearly a year to build the initial data set for the Center for Minority Veterans Information Systems, primarily by gathering information from Defense Department records on veterans' race, ethnicity and gender.

Anthony Hawkins, associate director of the VA's Center for Minority Veterans, said many VA organizations traditionally have not collected race information for fear that collection of such information might violate civil rights laws.

But collecting such information should not pave the way toward violation of civil rights or toward discrimination, Hawkins said. Rather, the practice could help correct disparities in the treatment of veterans. "I think it's going to go a long way toward getting a better understanding of what the needs of the minority veteran population [are]," Hawkins said.

Probing a Mystery

The level of service to minority and women veterans through the VA is largely a mystery, and the department only now is beginning to look at statistical data - to compare, for example, the average benefit payment a black veteran gets for a disability with the average payment a white veteran gets for the same disability.

The system also will enable VA officials to determine the percentage of minority veterans treated by VA hospitals and compare that number with the percentage of white veterans treated by VA hospitals.

Hawkins said that although the VA has had little statistical data to monitor service to minority and women veterans, it has had anecdotal data that minority veterans - for a variety of reasons - are not getting the full benefits of VA programs such as health care.

For example, VA medical workers have discovered individuals in some minority groups have a reluctance to discuss emotional status with a stranger, said Hawkins, explaining that determining mental status is key to diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hawkins said he also knows from anecdotal data that American Indian veterans living on federal trust lands have been unable in the past to get VA-sponsored education loans because lenders would be unable to foreclose on the trust property. Congress since has corrected that dilemma with legislation, Hawkins said.

But having statistics instead of anecdotes may help bring about change more easily and more quickly, he said. "There's no way in our current computer system to refute or support [an anecdote]," Hawkins said. "We're moving slowly. The first thing, I think, is to get some data. People respond to data."

For now, the focus at the Center for Minority Veterans is on collecting data, identifying disparities and trying to figure out why the disparities exist, Hawkins said. Then department leaders or Congress may take action to correct the disparities through awareness campaigns, outreach programs or legislation.

A spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said the senator supports the VA's efforts to address disparities in its services. Akaka, a minority veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers, sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "He is supportive of anything that would promote the use or accessibility of services to minority and women veterans," Akaka's spokesman said. "The senator believes that minority veterans and women veterans underutilize the programs."

The VA has two programs aimed at examining the problems of minority veterans: the Center for Minority Veterans and the Center for Women Veterans. But Hawkins said the Center for Minority Veterans, in compiling data in its new system, also will look at the level of service to women veterans. There are an estimated 1.2 million women veterans and about 3.5 million minority veterans, out of a total veteran population near 25 million.

Linda Schwartz - a member of the faculty at the Yale University School of Nursing, an Air Force veteran and a member of a women veterans advisory committee to the VA - said identifying women veterans has been especially difficult.

"No matter how much we try to do outreach to them, many of them don't think of themselves as veterans," she said. "We're still trying to identify women veterans and share in the concept that they are veterans."

Schwartz said a survey in the 1980s revealed that more than 50 percent of women veterans did not know about their VA benefits.

"That really showed us that we have a lot of work to do," Schwartz said. "It's been a long, hard battle."

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