Nonetheless, on March 16, the employee unions representing nearly 350,000 VA healthcare workers issued a joint statement that called on VHA management to “work with us to ensure the nation’s VA health facilities can safely handle COVID-19.” It’s time, said Everett Kelley, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, “for the VA to invite our members to the table, instead of kicking them off the property, so we can finally work together on a solution….”
“Instead of relaxing standards and efforts,” the unions said, “like we have seen the CDC do [in allowing healthcare workers to reuse facemasks and rely on simple surgical facemasks], “we need to be stepping it up.”
It all takes money. After weeks of debate, the US Senate has just released details of the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package. The US Department of Defense (DoD) seems about to get $10.5 billion in emergency funding and the VA another $19.6 billion. The money includes funding for National Guard deployments to help state governments respond to emerging health needs, the expansion of military hospitals and mobile medical centers if needed, and help with production of medical supplies. Nearly $16 billion will be used for direct care specifically in response to veterans’ health needs, covering treatment for COVID-19 in VA hospitals, community urgent care clinics and emergency departments; overtime for clinical staff; and purchase of protective equipment, tests, and other supplies.
Despite having one of the best telehealth systems in the US, the VA has also come under fire for its telehealth preparations to meet the current pandemic-related demand. Former VA Under Secretary of Health Kenneth Kizer wrote in an op-ed for Military Times, “Regrettably, so far, there is no coordinated strategy for ramping up and optimizing the use of telehealth to combat the growing epidemic in the US.” The relief package proposes $3 billion for new telemedicine efforts, including staffing and equipping mobile treatment sites.
In mid-March, the VA had 3,000 coronavirus test kits but still had not used roughly 90%, an article in Mother Jones charged. At a White house press conference around that time, Wilkie was asked how many veterans of those who needed to be tested had been. “We believe we’ve caught most of them,” he replied.
But that was in the early days of the crisis.
With results from the 322 tests administered by Mar. 18, the VA had confirmed five positive cases, was tracking 33 presumptive cases, and acknowledged the first veteran death linked to COVID-19. As of Mar. 26, the VA had administered roughly 7,500 COVID-19 tests nationwide.
Secretary Wilkie has promised that the department’s first focus will always be caring for veterans. In an interview with Military Times, he said, “We don’t release any beds if veterans are needing them. The veterans still are primary. We are a [health] bridge for the larger community, but that’s only after veterans are taken care of.”