Senate passes coronavirus relief bill with $60 million for VA

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 18, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will get $60 million in emergency funding as part of a coronavirus relief package the Senate approved Wednesday.

Of that amount, $30 million will go to VA medical services and another $30 million will be dedicated to community care — an account that pays for veterans to receive medical treatment from private-sector doctors. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the money would be used to boost diagnostic testing at the department.

As of Wednesday, the VA had 46 positive cases of coronavirus across its health care system. It had administered 322 tests as of Tuesday night, and it had 3,000 tests on hand.

“It’s imperative that the [VA] has the necessary resources to keep veterans, staff and communities across the country safe,” said Tester, who pushed for the VA funding. “Today’s bill is an important step to do just that, with $60 million headed to VA to ensure testing for everyone who needs it.”

The Senate passed the bill with a vote of 90-8, and it now goes to President Donald Trump’s desk. In addition to the VA funding, it provides paid sick leave, expanded jobless benefits and free testing for the coronavirus. Eight Republican lawmakers voted against the measure.

The original version of the relief package, approved the House last week, didn’t include additional funding for the VA. The agency hadn’t requested any money.

“We don’t need any extra money now,” Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told lawmakers near the end of February. But he acknowledged at the time that the situation could change.

By Tuesday, the VA was seeking billions more to combat the virus. Following the Senate vote Wednesday, lawmakers were expected to work on a bigger funding package that is expected to include more resources for the VA and other federal agencies.

According to sources familiar with the funding plan, the money would provide for more testing kits and protective equipment for VA facilities and allow the department to temporarily convert space in their facilities into negative-pressure chambers for coronavirus patients. The funding would reportedly be used to boost the department’s information technology capabilities in order to expand the use of telehealth.

Lawmakers also want the VA prepare for its “fourth mission,” to provide emergency medical care to all Americans in times of crises. The VA had not acted on this mission as of Wednesday, but Wilkie said his department would respond if called upon by Trump or the Department of Health and Human Services.

“VA must be properly prepared to respond to the unique needs of our nation’s veterans and ready to activate its critical fourth mission to support all Americans if it becomes necessary,” Tester said in a statement.

Lawmakers were also brainstorming methods to augment the VA’s workforce. Tester’s office said there are ideas to hire retired doctors, recruit medical students and ensure VA employees can secure childcare as schools remain closed.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, veterans, advocates and lawmakers decried the staff shortage at VA facilities. The agency reported last February that there were 49,000 staff vacancies nationwide. Of those, 42,790 were within the VA health care system, with 24,800 in the medical and dental fields. In September, the VA Office of Inspector General said there was a “severe” shortage of nurses and psychiatrists.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling