A vial of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine is surrounded by syringes at the Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic in Kalispell, Montana, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

A vial of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine is surrounded by syringes at the Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic in Kalispell, Montana, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES )

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WASHINGTON – An effort is underway in Congress to mandate the Department of Veterans Affairs to vaccinate all U.S. veterans against the coronavirus, as well as their spouses and caregivers.

Four senators on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee plan to introduce legislation Tuesday that would expand the population that the VA can vaccinate. The department is currently vaccinating employees and veterans enrolled into VA health care, as well as some veteran caregivers.

The “Saves Lives Act” would order the department to vaccinate any veteran, even if he or she is not eligible for VA health care. Under the bill, more caregivers would be eligible for a vaccine through the VA, as would spouses of veterans, veterans living abroad and recipients of the VA’s CHAMPVA program. The CHAMPVA program serves spouses and children of veterans permanently and totally disabled due to a service-related disability.

“The goal is to try to help as many people around the veterans get a shot so that everybody can feel comfortable,” Jon Tester, D-Mont., said during an interview Monday.

Along with Tester, Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark.; Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are introducing the bill.

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 Dr. Richard Stone, the VA’s acting undersecretary for health. Stone 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. “Maybe that’s something the chairman and I can work on.”

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

There are about 6 million veterans who actively use VA health care, as well as 450,000 employees. As of Monday, the VA had vaccinated 2.8 million, with slightly more than 1 million receiving both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

The senators aren’t concerned about the department’s logistics. During the hearing Feb. 24, Stone said that the VA can vaccinate 350,000 to 600,000 people each week – about double the number it’s currently vaccinating.

The senators said they want to harness the VA’s resources to get more people vaccinated at a faster pace.

“They’ve shown they can do a good job, a timely job, to get shots into peoples’ arms,” Tester said of the VA. “This is going to help everybody because a lot of states are having a hard time getting shots in arms. That’s not the case with the VA anywhere that I know of.”

However, to vaccinate a larger population, the department would need more doses.

In February, the VA was allotted about 125,000 doses each week, which Stone called an “austere amount.” At the end of February, the department received an additional allotment of 600,000 doses. Last week, it received its initial shipment of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, adding 71,400 doses.

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.”

The senators hope to get the “Saves Lives Act” to the Senate floor for a vote in the next few weeks.

The House introduced a narrower version of the bill earlier this month, titled the “VA Vaccine Act.” It was headed to the House floor for a vote Monday afternoon. The House version aims to expand vaccinations through the VA to all veterans, regardless of their eligibility for VA health care, as well as caregivers and veterans living abroad. It does not include spouses. 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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