Connecting Vets: VA must protect vulnerable veterans after dozens of deaths in state homes, Senator says

by Abbie Bennett

After outbreaks of COVID-19 at state veterans homes in Washington and Massachusetts killed dozens of veterans, one senator is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to do more to protect vulnerable vets from the virus.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Friday asking that the department use all of the additional authority granted by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to protect those veterans.

The massive stimulus package came with $20 billion more for VA, plus additional authority for the department, including the ability to share personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, with state veterans homes.

State veterans homes are operated by the states they’re located in, not by VA, though they do receive VA funding. But Tester said that doesn’t mean it’s not VA’s place to step in and care for those veterans in moments of crisis.

“There are more veterans in state veterans homes than any other VA-funded long-term care site, and we cannot abandon these veterans simply because they are not receiving care directly from VA,” he wrote. “(They) are especially at risk for dying of COVID-19, as evidenced by the outbreaks at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington and the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.”

Veterans who get care from home healthcare workers also are at risk and need VA help, and the stimulus bill directed VA to provide PPE to those home health workers employed by VA or contracted.

“These workers go into the homes of elderly or disabled veterans to provide vital care,” Tester wrote. “These workers are essential to the health of many vulnerable veterans, and ensuring their safety must be a top priority.”

Tester said his office heard that home healthcare workers were not provided PPE by VA, “going against the letter of the law.”

Connecting Vets also was told by several veterans that their home healthcare workers were not provided protective equipment such as masks, and were not allowed to wear the masks the veterans tried to supply for them.

VA officials denied those allegations and said VA supplied all its staff with appropriate PPE.

The CARES Act also included more flexibility for VA to provide help to homeless veterans and homeless shelters, including allowing the department to provide more grant payments. Tester asked for VA’s plan to make sure homeless vets are getting the help they need.

“VA must implement these new authorities, and others in the CARES Act, quickly and efficiently to protect veterans,” Tester wrote.