Congressional Democrats are pushing Veterans Affairs leaders to provide new anti-discrimination protections for patients in their health care system amid concerns that veterans could be denied some services without clearer rules.

In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Thursday, the group of 51 House and Senate lawmakers urged the department to follow the lead of the Health and Human Services authorities who have already issued regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

The move was mandated under the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, but VA officials have not put in place similar protections.

“We believe that our nation’s heroes are entitled to the same anti-discrimination protections as civilians using other federal health programs,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is of utmost importance that the VA act without delay.”

The effort was led by Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Fla., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. In a statement, Cherfilus-McCormick said the change is an opportunity for VA leaders to “send a clear, resounding, and enforceable message that no form of discrimination is ever to be tolerated.”

Department officials did not have an immediate response to the letter. Since President Joe Biden’s inauguration, VA leaders have repeatedly promised to make department services accessible and welcoming to all veterans, regardless of their background.

The congressional letter follows a petition from 14 veteran and civil rights groups pushing for the changes, saying the anti-discrimination policies are long overdue.

“These rules should be diligently communicated, leaving no room for ambiguity, and enforced across all levels of the organization,” said Rachel Branaman, interim executive director of the Modern Military Association. “Veterans, regardless of their background, deserve health care experiences that are uniformly positive, accessible, and responsive to their unique needs.”

Blumenthal said that minority veterans are particularly vulnerable to refusal of care or discrimination in services.

In addition, medical options for transgender veterans and reproductive health care services for women veterans have faced renewed scrutiny from conservative lawmakers in recent budget bills.

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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