American Legion Deputy Director of Health Policy Tiffany Ellett testified on March 30 before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The American Legion’s testimony focused on several bills and draft legislation on promoting and improving diversity and inclusion within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
H.R. 5776 — the Serving our LGBTQ Veterans Act — will establish a center within VA for LGBTQ+ veterans.
The legacy of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy enacted under the Clinton administration has left a lasting impact on LGBTQ+ veterans. Despite the discriminatory policy, hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people served in the U.S. military while being forced to hide their identities. Ultimately, an estimated 14,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual servicemembers were discharged under the policy before it was overturned by the Obama administration.
These servicemembers were given other-than-honorable discharges, which made them ineligible for VA health care, disability compensation, home loans and burial benefits. At the same time, these veterans faced a higher risk of suicide.
“VA efforts to better collect data on, implement programs for, and conduct social and demographic research on LGBTQ+ veterans would immensely help fill these gaps in treatment and care,” Ellett stated in written testimony. “Additionally, a provider may record veterans’ sexual orientation, but it is not a standardized clinical note in the electronic health records.”
With the absence of a standardized field, providers have not consistently collected this data which is essential to determining a LGBTQ+ veterans’ medical needs. The failure by VA to consistently collect the data was noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“Unfortunately, a result has been veterans’ inaccessibility to earned benefits and distrust of military and veteran systems,” Ellett wrote.
One way to ensure these health-care disparities do not continue for the LGBTQ+ veteran population is to upgrade the discharge status of those separated under the old policy to honorable. The American Legion is the only veterans service organization (VSO) that has a Discharge Upgrade Program (DUP) to assist veterans with “bad paper” discharges.
In addition to establishing a center for LGBTQ+ veterans in VA, H.R. 5776 would require the designation of a director that would be the head of the center. The director would need to be an appointee in the Senior Executive Service and report directly to the VA Secretary. The director would serve as the principal adviser to the VA Secretary on the implementation of LGBTQ+ veteran policies, make recommendations on how to improve programs, and conduct and sponsor appropriate social and demographic research on LGBTQ+ veterans.
The American Legion has strived in recent years to ensure LGBTQ+ veterans the services they have earned through VA. Through Resolution No. 6: Minority Veterans, The American Legion urges VA to ensure the health-care needs of all current and future minority veterans are met and supports H.R. 5776 as it is currently written.
Draft legislation for the Improving VA, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) Act outlined the establishment of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion within VA and to improve the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at VA.
Changes in military policies like the repeal of DADT have led to an increase in diversity within the military and veteran communities. Obama established the Diversity and Inclusion in Veterans Affairs Council (DIVAC) in 2010 and provide recommendations to the VA Secretary on inclusion and diversity issues.
“While the efforts of DIVAC and VA leadership have effectively incorporated diversity concepts into practice, VA has fallen behind other federal agencies in centralizing their efforts under a dedicated office,” Ellett wrote. “The workforce and customer service problems strongly suggest that VA would benefit from an office dedicated to inclusion and diversity like many other businesses and government agencies.”
In her written testimony, Ellett highlighted a survey showing that nearly 80% of VA employees surveyed in 2020 said there was an issue with racism within VA and many did not feel comfortable reporting acts of racism and discrimination to their leadership.
The American Legion’s 2018 System Worth Saving report noted an ongoing high turnover rate for primary and specialty care providers. A VA staffer attributed this to “bad first-line supervisors” and “lack of sensitivity at the executive level for diversity in the managerial ranks.” As a result of this report, The American Legion recommended every available means be enacted to help solve the retention issue.
The American Legion supports the IDEA Act through Resolution No. 5: Vision, Mission, Values, and Motto of The American Legion resolves that the principle of “equal justice and opportunity for everyone and discrimination against no one” is an American value.
Watch the hearing here.