Connecting Vets: Senators call on White House to provide coronavirus protective equipment for VA

by Abbie Bennett

Senators are calling on the Trump Administration to use the Defense Production Act to supply the Department of Veterans Affairs with needed personal protective equipment to combat the coronavirus as staff protest shortages and rationing.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and 15 other senators said in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence Thursday that the depletion of medical supplies nationally and a “broken federal procurement and distribution process” have left the VA “scrambling” to secure PPE, test kits, ventilators and other supplies necessary to combat the virus.

“With the fate of VA’s ability to procure supplies now in the Supply Chain Task Force’s hands, the administration must act quickly to fix this problem,” the senators wrote. “During this time of crisis, it is unconscionable that VA is having to compete for supplies to protect its health care providers and veterans. This administration must prioritize VA’s sacred mission to care for our nation’s veterans who are especially vulnerable during this pandemic. Working in a more coordinated manner would result in a better outcome for veterans and all Americans.”

Senators said the administration needed to invoke the DPA to address “the nation’s staggering shortage of supplies, VA’s broken supply chain” and to support the VA “in its critical mission to protect veterans, healthcare workers and communities from the virus.”

The current buying and distribution system for supplies has “forced” the VA to ration supplies and “left healthcare workers on the frontlines scrambling to protect themselves and veterans,” the senators said, asking that the administration, FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services work to support the VA in caring for veterans and also in its fourth mission to serve as a backup for the American healthcare system during times of crisis.

“Our nation made promises to provide the care our veterans earned through their service to defend the freedoms we all hold dear,” the senators wrote. “The administration’s slow response and lack of a coordinated nationwide effort undermines the services the VA can provide veterans … The administration must act aggressively to better utilize all the tools at hand to bring all Americans through this crisis. We must recognize that we share the same goal – to save lives. Making better use of the DPA is one way to do just that.”

Senators’ letter to VP
Senators’ letter to VP
For weeks, VA officials publicly denied any supply shortages, despite medical staff reporting rationing, a lack of supplies and expired supplies and VA internal memos showing a “serious” shortage of supplies and orders to ration protective gear such as masks.

Last week, Veterans Health Administration executive Dr. Richard Stone sent an internal memo promising that staff who were previously limited to one mask per week would receive one per day. It was the first recognition of supply rationing or shortages at VA by leadership. Publicly, officials still are denying shortages are affecting patient or staff safety.

Another memo from last week shows that protective equipment supplies “do not support providing a mask” to all VA medical staff and asks VA medical facility directors to conserve PPE.

The April 16 memo obtained by Connecting Vets was sent to VA medical network directors from Renee Oshinski, deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management.

“VHA staff providing direct patient care to COVID-19 patients should use a N95 respirator. When N95 respirators are in short supply, VHA staff performing low-risk care on suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients may use surgical masks,” the memo said, adding that VA’s supply of PPE still meets Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and the department was working to acquire more supplies.

“VHA staff directly involved with the care of Community Living Center, Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders and inpatient mental health patients will be provided with one facemask or surgical mask a day to protect the residents. Current supply levels do not support providing a mask to all VHA staff,” the memo said, blaming a “disrupted global supply chain.”

Facility directors were asked in the memo to plan for rationing and shortages.

“Plans should include scenarios that permit extended mask use, permit limited re-use, permit staff to bring in their own facemasks and N95 respirators and allow decontamination of used N95 respirators. The re-use of decontaminated masks should only be used under crisis scenarios.”

VA is working to secure more supplies, including awarding a $74,000 contract to MyPillow, a company that does not produce medical-grade protective supplies and is working to find a subcontractor to manufacture them, as first reported by Politico.

As of Thursday, VA reported 20 of its employees had died of the virus and 1,937 had tested positive.