What GAO Found
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken steps to reduce disparities in health care outcomes linked to race and ethnicity, but lacks mechanisms to measure progress and ensure accountability for results. In 2012, VA established the Office of Health Equity to identify and address health care outcome disparities and to develop an action plan to achieve health equity. This office issued an action plan in 2014 thatidentified activities to make improvements in five focus areas, such as increasing awareness of the significance of disparities and strengthening leadership for addressing them. However, GAO found that the extent of VA’s progress in implementing the action plan and advancing health equity is unknown because the action plan lacked performance measures and clear lines of accountability for specific offices. For example, although VA’s action plan included a list of “success criteria” for each of the five focus areas, these criteria were not measurable, and were not linked to specific activities or to offices responsible for implementation. VA funds research efforts that have identified disparities in health care outcomes involving minority veterans, but rely on data that VA officials and researchers noted have weaknesses in completeness and accuracy. One concern is that race and ethnicity information can be labeled incorrectly in VA patients’ electronic health records as ”self-reported”, a highly reliable method of collection, when data were actually collected based on the less reliable method of VA staff observation. Other reported concerns include missing values on patients’ race and conflicting race and ethnicity information. VA researchers told GAO they account for some of these concerns by using data from other sources, such as Medicare, but such work-arounds are time intensive. Further, VA officials reported that data weaknesses limit their ability to identify and address disparities in health care outcomes in their medical centers. Despite recognizing weaknesses related to the quality of race and ethnicity data, VA has not implemented corrective actions to address them. Without doing so, VA medical center officials cannot readily identify and address disparities in health care outcomes by race and ethnicity.