The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. (TNS)

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WASHINGTON – How much control the federal government should exert over state-run veterans homes will be one of the “most important questions” to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie predicted Thursday.

Hundreds of residents of state veterans homes have died of the virus after outbreaks at multiple facilities. At the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts, 74 veterans have died of the virus and an investigation was launched into potential mismanagement. The death toll at the Paramus Veterans Home in New Jersey reached 81 on Wednesday. Two top officials at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center in Spring City, Penn., were suspended this week after dozens of deaths among its residents.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs inspects and certifies the country’s nearly 150 veterans homes and pays some of the cost of treating residents. However, states own the homes and are responsible for managing them. The arrangement should be the subject of debate by Congress, Wilkie said Thursday.

“There needs to be a clearer debate on what the final federal responsibility is for those state veterans homes,” he said.

Wilkie testified Thursday before members of the House Committee on Appropriations about his department’s response to the pandemic. The hearing marked the first time a Cabinet-level official testified on Capitol Hill since a national emergency was issued in the United States. Wilkie and other VA officials wore masks while inside the hearing room, as did lawmakers. Other committee members joined via videoconference.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., brought up the deaths at veterans homes and suggested the federal government have more control over their operations.

“My understanding is there are hundreds of veterans across the country who have died in state-run veterans homes,” Cartwright said. “Might a stronger, more comprehensive, united policy for the 50 states work better for the residents of state homes where lives were lost?”

While the VA doesn’t manage the homes, the department is responsible for oversight. The pandemic has raised questions about whether the agency did that job well enough.

The Government Accountability Office published a report in July 2019 that urged the VA to enhance its oversight of state-run veterans homes. The VA uses contractors to inspect the homes, but the department did not regularly monitor their performance, the GAO wrote. In addition, the VA didn’t require the contractors to identify every failure of the veterans homes to meet quality standards, which “limits VA’s ability to track all deficiencies… and identify trends in quality.”

At the beginning of May, four senators asked the GAO to investigate the VA’s oversight of veterans homes and determine whether the department made improvements after the 2019 report. The GAO agreed to the request May 14.

As of Thursday, more than 13,500 VA patients had tested positive for the coronavirus and 1,200 had died. The death toll largely reflects the deaths among VA inpatients. The department has not kept a comprehensive count of veterans who died at veterans homes.

The VA has assisted residents of veterans homes in 14 states as part of its “Fourth Mission” to serve as America’s backup medical system.

According to an updated list of its outreach, the VA has admitted 120 residents of veterans homes into its hospitals. The department sent 90 nurses to help residents of two veterans homes in New Jersey, and it provided reusable gowns and other supplies to the state veterans homes in Iowa and Minnesota. Nine VA medical staff were sent to the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City, Ala., where nearly two dozen residents have died. 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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