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VA Head Pledges To Provide Health Care Backstop, Responds To Lack Of Gear Claims


The Department of Veterans Affairs is the country's largest health care system. Nine million American veterans get care from the VA, which means VA doctors and nurses are serving on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. A month ago, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told me here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that his department was well-prepared for the outbreak and had plenty of masks and testing kits. Today, NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with Wilkie to see how that statement was holding up.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Secretary Wilkie says the VA is now competing for the same scarce resources as the rest of the country and the world.

ROBERT WILKIE: So what has happened since then, as the national emergency kicked in, the normal supply chains that we have have dried up.

LAWRENCE: He says no VA hospital has run out, but that's because the VA has been forced to carefully ration equipment.

WILKIE: For those who are on the front lines in the emergency rooms, in the COVID wards, who are in the nursing homes, they have the normal supply of equipment. It's those who do not have that direct contact with patients that we've asked to follow CDC guidelines.

LAWRENCE: But for staff who - I know you say that you were following CDC guidelines, but all the doctors I've spoken with say those guidelines have rapidly lowered themselves to meet the reality of supply on the ground. Are there still VA staff who are going to be working under conditions they consider unsafe?

WILKIE: Well, you just mentioned the reality on the ground. And in following those CDC guidelines, we are ensuring that those on the front lines have what they need. Does everyone in a hospital have all of the changes in gear that we would have in a normal situation? No.

LAWRENCE: VA union members across the country have been protesting the lack of protective gear. Last week, they claimed a victory when the VA changed its rules to allow a greater number of staff to use one mask per day instead of one per week. That was also the first time VA publicly acknowledged it was rationing gear. Wilkie says despite less-than-ideal conditions, the VA is not overwhelmed and has even been able to start helping non-VA patients.

WILKIE: We are sending teams of nurses, doctors, gerontologists into the states. New Jersey - we are taking over operations of their state veterans home. We are sending 16 teams into Florida as we speak. We have moved into Massachusetts, and I've been on the phone with various governors just this morning about how we can help.

LAWRENCE: Particularly with nursing homes, where the virus has been so deadly. Wilkie says VA is relying on the private sector for testing kits, despite calls for the VA to take the lead in testing as one of the country's biggest medical research systems. Wilkie says for all the simulations and planning, VA was not totally prepared for what he calls the worst national health crisis since 1918. He says VA is adjusting as fast as its 400,000 employees can.

WILKIE: We try to move as quickly as possible. We know people are making sacrifices, and they are worthy of praise from the entire country. Thank you for going into harm's way.

LAWRENCE: More than 5,500 veteran patients have tested positive and more than 1,500 VA staff. At least 14 staff and over 300 patients have died. Because of their average age and health conditions, veterans are one of the most vulnerable populations in the country.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.