April 17, 2009 – The experience of 56 year-old Army veteran Tommie Canady at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Medical Center was not the only story members of the VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans heard April 7 when they gathered at the facility for a town hall-type meeting.
Vets shared with the committee problems with paperwork and slowness in the processing of disability claims. One group offered up eight areas of concern to the committee, ranging from health care to homelessness, and urged the VA to become even more “vet-centric,” to streamline its processes and to be more forward-thinking in delivering services to families.
But Canady’s story — allegations of racial discrimination and a claim that he was twice given an overdose of morphine by a nurse who continues to work at the hospital — peaked the interest of a local radio reporter who, when he tried to interview Canady, was interrupted by a hospital official.
Gloria Hairston, a hospital public affairs officer, told reporter David Schultz he could not use the interview and told Canady he could not talk anymore. But when Canady insisted he would, Hairston returned with a pair of security guards and demanded Schultz turn over his recording equipment.
After a quick call to his editor back at WAMU 88.5, a local affiliate of National Public Radio, Schultz turned over the sound card to his recorder and left. It would be the next day before he got to complete his interview with Canady and two more days before he got his sound card back from the hospital.
Canady could not be reached for comment. But the hospital’s strong-arm approach to halt the interview had a consequence it didn’t intend — it turned Canady’s claims of racism and malpractice into a larger story and captured the interest of Paul Sullivan, a former VA project manager who monitored Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq War vets and who now heads up Veterans for Common Sense.
“I will tell you, under the surface there is some racism” within the VA, Sullivan told Military.com. “Now, whether or not it impacts the delivery of care I don’t know the answer. I wish we had an answer.”
It should be a matter of looking at the paperwork on disability claims, he said, comparing like injuries and getting a sense of whether there are discrepancies in who is awarded a disability, who is not, and whether race may be a factor.
But you can’t do that, he said, because the VA does not ask applicants for information on race.
“The VA … doesn’t ask you to list your race on an application form [for a disability claim], so that it will be impossible to answer that question,” Sullivan said.
There is a way to do it, but it would require matching VA records against those maintained by the Pentagon since the Gulf War, when the Defense Department began assigning “a flag” to denote a service member’s ethnicity. But the VA, he believes, would not want to do that, as it did not want to when he and others “tried to sort by race” for Gulf War veterans.
“We got smacked down by political appointees. … They said we’d be opening up a can of worms,” Sullivan said. “We were ordered not to look into it.”
VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said that the VA collects race and ethnic data when vets are applying for health benefits or home loans, but does not collect it on applications for disabilities.
The absence of this data on disability claims was noted by VA’s advisory committee on minorities in its July 2008 report, where it noted the general perception among minority veterans that they are not being provided equal services. But the committee is not able to address such perceptions because racial and ethnic data is not available, it reported, and recommended that the VA “establish uniform criteria” for collecting it.
Roberts also said the VA hospital in Washington will look into all claims or concerns brought up by veterans who came out to the town hall. And the VA Advisory Committee on Minorities will follow up and make its own report, she said.
A separate investigation is underway into Hairston’s confiscating Schultz’ reporting equipment, Roberts said.