Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. (Michael Ciaglo, Getty Images/TNS)

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WASHINGTON – Congress approved a bill Friday that makes all veterans, as well as their spouses and caregivers, eligible for a coronavirus vaccine through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The House approved the legislation under unanimous consent. It passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday, and now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk.

“This bill is all about getting shots in the arms of more in the veteran community and allowing the VA to expand the great work it’s already doing to administer shots,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who introduced the bill. “This is great news for veterans, their spouses and caregivers, and puts us one step closer to normalcy.”

In the months that vaccines have been available, the VA has focused its vaccination efforts on the 6 million veterans enrolled into VA health care. In instances where there are more doses than there are eligible VA patients to receive them, VA employees have enrolled eligible veterans “on the spot” and vaccinated them, said Dr. Richard Stone, VA undersecretary for health.

The Saves Lives Act will allow the VA to vaccinate all veterans, regardless of whether they’re eligible for VA health care. Under the law, “veteran” means any person who served in the Armed Forces and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.

The legislation stipulates that veterans enrolled into VA health care will still receive priority, and the VA will offer vaccinations to the other groups only when and where the vaccine supply is available.

The bill was introduced earlier this month by Boozman and Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Boozman said he heard from several veterans in his state who were unhappy that their spouses couldn’t get vaccinated when they did. During a Senate hearing Feb. 24, Boozman brought up the issue with Stone, who said that because of federal law, the VA wasn’t allowed to vaccinate spouses.

“So you need additional legislative relief to get there?” Boozman asked Stone. “Maybe that’s something the chairman and I can work on.”

On Friday, Boozman said he was pleased that Congress “understood the urgency to quickly approve” the bill.

As of Friday, the VA had fully vaccinated 1.4 million people. The department celebrated a milestone Thursday when 2 million veterans had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Veterans have taken the vaccine at extraordinary rates and continue to line up for the vaccine for us,” Stone said Thursday. “We’re very pleased.”

In some areas of the country, VA facilities are vaccinating veterans of all ages. Stone said VA headquarters has given flexibility to local facilities to make doses available to more veterans as the supply allows.

To vaccinate the larger population included in the Saves Lives Act, the department needs more doses, the senators said.

Stone has told lawmakers that the VA could administer about double the number of vaccines each week than it’s currently administering because of the “austere supply.” The bill urges the Department of Health and Human Services to allot more vaccines to the VA as the supply chain allows. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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