Senate-approved stimulus bill includes nearly $20 billion for VA

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2020

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs would get $19.6 billion to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic under a sweeping $2 trillion measure the Senate passed Wednesday night. 

The money would be used to buy more testing kits, medical equipment and personal protective equipment for medical staff, boost the department’s telehealth capabilities and send veterans outside the VA for emergency care, among other measures.

The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve the bill. The House is expected to take it up Friday and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., opposed the original version of the massive funding measure as written by Republicans. It contained no money for the VA, said Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The $19.6 billion was added during negotiations between both parties.

“Although this stimulus package is far from perfect, it is a vast improvement to the original bill, which had zero dollars to support VA,” Tester said in a statement. “The bill now provides essential funding to  increase VA’s response efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus.”

The legislation would send direct payments of $1,200 to individuals earning up to $75,000. The payments would decrease for Americans earning more than $75,000, and payments would end for individuals making more than $99,000. Married couples that collectively earn up to $150,000 would receive payments of $2,400. Families would receive an additional $500 per child.

It would also expand unemployment benefits, provide loans to small businesses and establish a lending program for companies hurt by the pandemic.

The package also includes a measure to give $100 billion to hospitals treating coronavirus patients.

For the VA, it includes $14.4 billion for medical and protective equipment. The measure requires the VA to provide protective gear to all home health care workers who serve veterans, provide financial assistance to programs that assist homeless veterans and lift pay caps for any VA staff working overtime during the pandemic. It also gives $150 million to state veterans homes to help the facilities respond to the pandemic.

The bill offers $2.1 billion to support an expected increase in demand for veterans seeking care outside the VA. This comes despite an announcement from the department Tuesday that it would limit the number of veterans it sends to community providers for routine care. Veterans can still be sent to private health care facilities for emergency care “when necessary,” the agency said. Each referral will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

As of Wednesday, the VA had administered 3,378 coronavirus tests and was treating 365 patients who tested positive for the virus. About one-third of those positive cases were in New Orleans.

The VA operates 172 medical centers and treats more than 9 million veterans nationwide. Many of those veterans are considered at higher risk for the coronavirus because of their age and underlying health conditions.

“During this pandemic, it is important that our veterans have continuity of health care and the benefits they have earned,” said. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It is also crucial the VA has the necessary resources to support the dedicated front-line employees responding to this crisis.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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