Veterans Groups Petition VA to Follow Anti-Discrimination Law

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Lindsay Church, Executive Director of Minority Veterans of America
Lindsay Church, from Richmond, Va., Executive Director of Minority Veterans of America, speaks with reporters about reproductive rights for U.S. veterans, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

More than a dozen veterans and LGBTQ+ groups, as well as a Democratic senator, are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to better prevent what they describe as pervasive discrimination against women and gender-nonconforming veterans by issuing formal anti-discrimination regulations.

The 13 organizations filed a petition Thursday requesting VA regulations to enforce existing anti-discrimination law, arguing that a formal rule is needed to strengthen protections for women and LGBTQ+ veterans.

"For far too long, minority veterans, including racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ and religious minority veterans, have faced pervasive discrimination when seeking health care at VA," Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, which is leading the petition, said Thursday at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol building.

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"We carry the weight of both visible and invisible wounds, the physical injuries that bear witness to the hardships of wartime and the emotional toll of facing prejudice, discrimination and violence every day," Church continued. "But when we return to the VA for care, we deserve to be met with compassion, understanding and respect. We shouldn't be denied care or have our identities invalidated because of who we are, what we look like or who we love."

At issue is a provision in the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, that prohibits federal health care programs and those that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability or sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite that law already ostensibly banning the VA from discriminating against women and LGBTQ+ veterans, the petitioners allege discrimination is common and say a regulation is needed to enforce the law. The petition points to studies showing that one-third of female veterans enrolled in the VA have reported gender-based discrimination and that one in three LGBTQ+ veterans describe the Veterans Health Administration as unwelcoming.

"Our clients have been dead-named, misgendered, targeted by VA security and denied access to the care that they require," said Alex Johnson, a law intern at the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is representing the groups in the petition.

"The VA hasn't made clear that it understands, namely, that harassing or discriminating against transgender veterans, for example, is illegal," Johnson added. "The regulations can specify remedies for veterans who experienced this type of identity-based harassment and discrimination, which provides support on the back end."

The groups are using a mechanism under the Administrative Procedure Act that allows any member of the public to petition the government to undertake the federal rulemaking process. The agency that receives the petition does not have to grant the request, but does have to consider it and respond "within a reasonable time," according to the Congressional Research Service.

Asked for comment about the petition, VA spokesperson Terrence Hayes told Military.com that "discrimination has no place at VA."

"At VA, it's our job to provide world-class health care and benefits to all veterans in a safe, caring and welcoming environment," Hayes said in an emailed statement. "There is not -- and never will be -- any tolerance for discrimination at VA. We thank each and every one of our nation's heroes for their service and sacrifice, and we encourage them to come to VA for their earned health care and benefits."

The call for the VA to do more to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ+ veterans comes as GOP lawmakers have increasingly targeted their rights, including programs at the VA intended to make the agency more welcoming to those veterans. House Republicans have included several provisions in the annual VA spending bill seeking to end the programs. The VA has also come under criticism from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups for delaying its promise to cover gender-affirmation surgery for transgender veterans.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he plans to write to VA Secretary Denis McDonough to demand that the anti-discrimination law be implemented and enforced.

"I think Secretary McDonough's heart is in the right place, and I think the leadership of the VA knows what it has to do," Blumenthal said at the news conference. "What we need to do is give them a friendly push. And the petition that's being filed here gives them a very powerful and much-needed push."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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