Democratic members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday accused administration officials of trying to stonewall their efforts to monitor shortages in personal protective equipment and other key supplies at VA hospitals during the coronavirus crisis.
In a letter Thursday to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s task force on coronavirus response, committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and seven other panel lawmakers said the Office of Management and Budget have blocked their requests for copies of memos related to hospital operations at numerous sites across the country.
“We have found that the information reported to the Committees through VA’s daily and weekly briefings — especially with regard to availability of personal protective equipment — stands in stark contrast to what we have heard from VA employees and read in the media regarding PPE shortages at VA medical facilities,” the group wrote.
“The lack of specificity in VA’s ongoing briefings for the committee not only poses risks of potential harm to veterans, but also leads us to a simple conclusion — your administration has hamstrung VA’s ability to ensure Congress is fully informed of the full extent to which it is prepared to care for veterans.”
The complaints center on new reports of mask rationing and other critical equipment shortages at several VA medical sites, even ones not currently seeing a large number of coronavirus cases.
VA press secretary Christina Noel said in response to the letter that both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees are receiving daily status updates from the department, and weekly calls with top officials.
“All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle coronavirus cases, and all VA employees have the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, as per CDC guidelines,” she said. “VA is monitoring the supply levels at every facility every day to make sure facilities have adequate PPE for the number and types of patients they are seeing. And if a facility were to fall below stock levels, the facility could be cross-leveled by another VA facility or region.”
As of Wednesday, 119 VA hospitals had recorded at least one case of the fast-spreading virus, and 272 patients had died from the illness.
Officially, VA leadership has told lawmakers that the department has enough protective equipment to last two weeks without any shortfalls. Union leaders have repeatedly disputed that assertion and called on the White House to provide better protection for front-line workers.
Committee officials said they “don’t need to waste any more of (VA) Secretary (Robert) Wilkie’s and (Veteran Health Administration acting executive Richard) Stone’s valuable time with further requests for these documents when it is clear that the White House and OMB are holding up their release.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
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.