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The Department of Veterans Affairs has unveiled its Equity Action Plan, which the agency said would remove hurdles for marginalized veterans to access health care, benefits, and services.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has unveiled its Equity Action Plan, which the agency said would remove hurdles for marginalized veterans to access health care, benefits, and services. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has unveiled its Equity Action Plan, which the agency said would remove hurdles for marginalized veterans to access health care, benefits and services.

“The department’s mission is to ensure equity and access for all those who served their country in uniform, and the Equity Action Plan is a natural extension of that mission,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a prepared statement. “We have efforts underway to change policies, processes and procedures, as well as identify infrastructure and data enhancements to enable access to all veterans, including underserved veterans.”

The agency’s plan is part of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 13985, which he signed Jan. 20, 2021. The executive order focuses on the federal government providing equal opportunity to all services and benefits.

Shortly after taking the helm of the VA in February 2021, McDonough vowed to focus on inclusivity, diversity and equity during his tenure as secretary. One of McDonough’s first actions was to initiate an agency-wide review of the department’s policies to determine how to make it a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ patients and employees.

The 18-member inclusion, diversity, equity and access task force was created to handle the review, and the VA announced in January that the group had issued 88 recommendations. The agency said the process of considering those recommendations would take four years.

One of the recommendations from the task force was to collect information from patients and employees about their race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation. The agency said it’s addressing the recommendation by launching a Data for Equity strategy, which will help the agency identify and remove disparities for women, veterans of color, LGBTQ+, and other veterans of underserved communities.

The equity strategy will coordinate the VA’s data on health care, disability benefits and other services. Moreover, it will address the data gaps in the agency’s demographic information.

Task force members also suggested the VA do more outreach to underserved communities of veterans, such as those living in rural or remote areas or veterans who speak little English. The VA said its data showed veterans from underserved communities have lower trust in the agency compared to other veteran populations. To improve trust, the VA said it will oversee research to help them better understand underserved veterans’ experiences.

The Equity Action Plan also details the VA’s progress within the first year of Biden’s executive order. In June, McDonough announced the VA would offer gender-confirmation surgeries to transgender patients for the first time.

In September, the VA announced LGBTQ+ veterans who were kicked out of the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the 1990s and 2000s will now be eligible for government benefits.

In January, the VA announced veterans who identify as transgender or nonbinary are now able to indicate their preference in their official VA medical records. The agency added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other when veterans select their gender. The gender identifier, along with a veteran’s preferred name, will be displayed on a patient’s health record.

“VA leadership has done a great job of leading from the top on issues of health equity, and it's clear that within VA, folks are beginning to understand many of the issues facing LGBTQ+ veterans,” said Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America. “The challenge has continued to be putting these words into actions that reach all levels of VA.”

Church said the group is grateful for the measures the VA is taking to address many historic inequities, but it questions how the agency will ensure facility safety and a harassment-free environment where LGBTQ+ veterans feel supported in their care.

Church identifies as nonbinary transgender, which means a person does not identify as male or female. Church was once chased into a restroom by a VA staff member at Hunter Holmes McGuire Hospital in Richmond, Va., shouting at Church through the door that a man was recently in the women’s restroom.

Church no longer walks inside the VA facility and instead enters the facility through the women’s clinic at the Richmond hospital.

However, Church said the Richmond facility is working on addressing the issue, promoting cultural change and plan to provide training to its staff.

“I give VA credit for working to remedy the issue quickly and I hope that it creates some level of change on the ground level of the hospital,” Church said. “It will take continued training, education, dialogue, and structural change to truly address the problem and the harm.”

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.
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