Black veterans are less likely to have their benefits claims processed and paid out than their white peers because of systemic problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a lawsuit filed against the agency Monday.

“A Black veteran who served honorably can walk into the VA, file a disability claim and be at a significantly higher likelihood of having that claim denied,” said Adam Henderson, a student working with the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, one of several groups connected to the lawsuit.

“The VA has denied countless meritorious applications of Black veterans and thus deprived them and their families of the support that they are entitled to.”

The suit, filed in federal court by the clinic on behalf of Vietnam War veteran Conley Monk Jr., asks for “redress for the harms caused by the failure of VA staff and leaders to administer these benefits programs in a manner free from racial discrimination against Black veterans.”

In a press conference announcing the lawsuit, the effort received backing from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who called it an “unacceptable” situation.

“Black veterans are denied benefits at a very significantly disproportionate rate,” he said. “We know the results. We want to know the reason why.”

The suit stems from an analysis of VA claims records released by the department following an earlier legal action. Between 2001 and 2020, the average denial rate disability claims filed for Black veterans was 29.5%, significantly above the 24.2% for white veterans.

Attorneys allege the problems date back even further, and that VA officials should have known about the racial disparities in the system from previous complaints.

“The negligence of VA leadership, and their failure to train, supervise, monitor and instruct agency officials to take steps to identify and correct racial disparities, led to systematic benefits obstruction for Black veterans,” the suit states.

Monk is a Black disabled Marine Corps veteran who previously sued the military to overturn his less-than-honorable military discharge due to complications from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was subsequently granted access to a host of veterans benefits, but not to retroactive payouts for claims he was denied back in the 1970s.

“They didn’t fully compensate me or my family,” he said. “I wasn’t able to give my kids my educational benefits. We should have been receiving checks while they were growing up.”

Along with potential past benefits for Monk, individuals involved with the lawsuit said the move could force VA to reassess thousands of other unfairly dismissed cases.

“For decades [the U.S. government] has allowed racially discriminatory practices to obstruct Black veterans from easily accessing veterans housing, education and health care benefits with wide-reaching economic consequences for Black veterans and their families,” said Richard Brookshire, executive director of the Black Veterans Project.

“This lawsuit reckons with the shameful history of racism by the Department of Veteran Affairs and seeks to redress long-standing improprieties reverberating across generations of Black military service.”

In a statement, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes did not directly respond to the lawsuit but noted that “throughout history, there have been unacceptable disparities in both VA benefits decisions and military discharge status due to racism, which have wrongly left Black veterans without access to VA care and benefits.

“We are actively working to right these wrongs, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that all Black veterans get the VA services they have earned and deserve,” he said. “We are currently studying racial disparities in benefits claims decisions, and we will publish the results of that study as soon as they are available.”

Hayes said the department has already begun targeted outreach to Black veterans to help them with claims and is “taking steps to ensure that our claims process combats institutional racism, rather than perpetuating it.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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