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Senate passes bill allowing VA to vaccinate all veterans, spouses

In a June 27, 2018. photo, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester, D-Mont., listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2021

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WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday evening that would order the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer vaccinations to any veteran who wants one, regardless of whether they are enrolled in VA health care.

Under the Saves Lives Act, veterans’ spouses and caregivers would also become eligible for vaccines through the VA. The department is currently vaccinating only employees and veterans enrolled in VA health care, as well as some veteran caregivers.

“Vaccines are our best shot at ending this pandemic,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “Unanimous passage of Saves Lives Act brings us one step closer to our goal of providing free vaccination services to every veteran, spouse, child and caregiver at VA.”

Tester, along with Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark.; Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the bill last week. It now goes to the House.

“I encourage the House to take up this critical legislation so we can get shots in more arms,” Boozman said.

There are about 6 million veterans who actively use VA health care, as well as 450,000 employees. As of Wednesday, about 1.4 million veterans had been fully vaccinated by the VA, including slightly more than 1 million veterans.

The legislation would add millions more people to the population that the VA is responsible for vaccinating.

Dr. Richard Stone, the VA’s acting undersecretary for health, said at the end of February that the VA had the ability to vaccinate between 350,000 to 600,000 people each week – about double the number it was vaccinating at the time.

The challenge will be allotting the VA enough doses to cover the extra population of veterans, spouses and caregivers, the senators said.

Tester and Boozman said the VA would need to negotiate with the Department of Health and Human Services to receive more. Their bill urges HHS to allot more vaccines to the VA as the supply chain allows.

“The biggest challenge is getting more vaccines to the VA,” Tester said. “I think we need to continue to press, and I think the VA needs to continue to press, whether it’s HHS or whoever it is, to get as many vaccines as possible.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling