As the number of coronavirus cases in the Veterans Affairs medical system continues to rise, lawmakers are asking whether officials are fully prepared for the numerous challenges ahead.
VA leadership has already insisted they are, and in a message to veterans said they coordinating their efforts with other federal agencies to “protect the health of everyone who visits or works at one of our facilities.”
As of Friday morning, at least 16 patients connected to 10 different VA medical centers nationwide have tested positive for the coronavirus or are awaiting confirmation but presumed to be infected.
Nationwide, more than 1,200 individuals in 42 states have been infected, and at least 36 have died. Numerous public school systems and universities have closed down for the next few weeks, and large conferences, professional sports and entertainment events have been cancelled.
Earlier this month, VA officials responded to congressional inquiries about the coronavirus response saying they did not need any additional funding or authorities to bolster their medical response.
Nationwide the system has about 900 isolation beds that could be used to quarantine patients with the illness, although two-thirds of those are in use by patients with other health problems.
On Tuesday, department officials announced that all VA nursing homes and spinal cord injury and disorder centers will have a “no visitor” rule in an effort to limit the virus spread. All other VA medical centers have been screening visitors for the last few weeks for signs of illness, and barring some individuals from medical campuses.
Now, with the number of coronavirus cases increasing, a group of 12 senators is asking VA leadership to offer more public detail on their response planning, including weekly updates on medical supply levels, testing protocols and staff health updates.
“We recognize that the COVID-19 outbreak is an evolving situation, with a growing impact on the U.S. and global community, and want to ensure that the VA has all of the resources needed to keep veterans, staff and communities safe,” the letter states.
In particular, the group of lawmakers questioned whether the department can handle increased staff and testing demands without extra money, since “VA did not request or receive additional funding in the coronavirus supplemental funding package.”
In a statement Friday, VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said that VA facilities “are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle an influx of coronavirus cases.”
“VA has proactively implemented appropriate measures to ensure the safest health care environment for each veteran, visitor and employee,” she said. “These measures include multi-channel outreach to veterans and staff, clinical screening at VA health care facilities, as well as protective procedures for patients admitted to community living centers and spinal cord injury units.”
Meanwhile, officials on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are pushing colleagues on a series of legislative priorities to help deal with the crisis, including plans to eliminate co-payments for certain medical appointments related to the illness and extend GI Bill housing stipends for students whose colleges are shifting to online-only classes.
“As the Department of Veterans Affairs considers its own preventive measures, it is important that Congress and this committee actively work to ensure VA has the required resources to carry out these tasks,” chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement.
VA officials are posting their latest system information on the virus — as well as advice for patients planning on accessing department medical facilities in coming weeks — on their web site.
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.