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The signature of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act document on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 27, 2020.

The signature of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act document on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 27, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The signature of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act document on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 27, 2020.

The signature of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act document on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 27, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

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WASHINGTON – The House approved and President Trump signed into law a sweeping $2 trillion measure Friday that includes $19.6 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers directed the money toward buying more testing kits, medical equipment and personal protective equipment for medical staff, boosting the department’s telehealth capabilities and sending veterans outside the VA for emergency care.

The House passed the bill by voice vote, following a unanimous vote in the Senate on Wednesday. The legislation was then signed by President Trump.

The massive spending bill, which is intended to jolt the economy, includes direct payments to Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, loans to small businesses and a lending program for companies hurt by the pandemic. It will also give about $100 billion to hospitals treating coronavirus patients.

For the VA, it includes billions of dollars 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.

Lawmakers said the funding would also prepare the department for its “fourth mission” of backing up the American medical system in national emergencies. As of Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services, which can activate the VA to aid civilian hospitals, had not called on the agency for help.

“This funding will save veterans’ lives, protect VA’s health care providers and first responders, and give VA the resources it needs to serve as the nation’s backup health care system in communities where local hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said on the House floor. Takano is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The VA, which operates 170 medical centers across the country and treats more than 9 million veterans, reported Friday it had 571 cases of coronavirus across its health care system.

Speaking on the House floor Friday, Takano said 185 VA employees had contracted the virus, including doctors and nurses. The VA has not provided a public count of its employees who tested positive.

The number of VA patients who died of the virus grew to nine Friday after the department reported three new deaths. A patient in his or her 60s died on March 21 in Atlanta. Two veterans died Wednesday: one in his or her 90s in Miami, and another veteran in his or her 50s in Brooklyn.

The VA had previously reported that two other veterans died in New York City. The other deaths were in Chicago, Indianapolis, Portland, Ore., and White River Junction, Vt.

After widespread concerns about the number of tests the VA had administered, it reported a boost in tests Friday. It had administered 8,986 tests, up from the 3,378 tests the department tallied Wednesday.

In addition to more tests, supplies and information technology capabilities, the spending measure approved Friday offers about $2 billion to support an expected increase in demand for veterans seeking care outside the VA. This comes despite an announcement from the department this week 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, rather than veterans automatically being sent to a community doctor when they can’t get a VA appointment within 20 days or live more than 30 minutes from a VA provider.

VA officials said the restrictions on community care would help prevent veterans’ exposure to the coronavirus and leave beds open at private health care facilities for coronavirus patients. Lawmakers voiced concerns that the move to limit veterans’ access to community care would prevent them from getting the treatment they need. Lawmakers were still seeking answers about the pause from the VA on Friday.

The spending package also gives $150 million to state veterans homes to help the facilities respond to the pandemic, and it sets aside more than $600 million for the VA to add space to clinics and hospitals for coronavirus patients. Money would also be used to deploy the VA’s mobile treatment units.

“Millions of veterans across the country are concerned about their own health and well-being and that of their families,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said in a statement Friday. “Hundreds of thousands of VA employees are working day and night. With the passage of this bill, we assure them that their leaders are standing with them, ready, willing and able to deliver the support they need.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com 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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