In an April 9, 2020 photo, a New Jersey Army National Guard combat medic stands ready to direct other medics arriving at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, N.J., to provide medical support for the residents at the home, which is run by the state's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

In an April 9, 2020 photo, a New Jersey Army National Guard combat medic stands ready to direct other medics arriving at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, N.J., to provide medical support for the residents at the home, which is run by the state's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. (Mark C. Olsen/National Guard)

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WASHINGTON – State-run veterans’ homes will soon be required to share the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at their facilities with the federal government under a bill passed by Congress this week.

Congress approved the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 on Wednesday and sent it to President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law. The legislative package is over 340 pages long and includes numerous dozens of measures for veterans.

A few of the provisions focus on the country’s 162 state-run veterans’ homes, some of which have experienced deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus. More than 19,000 veterans and their spouses live in the homes, but it’s unclear how many have contracted the virus or died from it.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs does not require the homes to inform them of coronavirus deaths. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said that deaths at veterans’ homes aren’t included in the department’s coronavirus counts.

That would change under the bill passed by Congress this week. It requires all state-run homes to submit weekly reports to the VA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that outline the cases and deaths among residents and staff. The homes would also be required to detail their supply of personal protective equipment, ventilator capacity and any staff shortages.

Within 30 days from when Trump signs the bill, the VA would be required to publicly post the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at the homes.

States are in charge of operating the homes, but the federal VA leads their oversight. The homes receive money from the VA based on the number of residents, which totals about $1 billion in federal funding across all the homes. The facilities also undergo yearly inspections by the VA to ensure they meet a list of VA-imposed regulations.

The legislation passed this week contains measures to ensure the homes continue to receive VA payments for residents through the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, when it was clear the cases and deaths at state-run veterans’ homes weren’t being publicly reported, Vietnam Veterans of America formed a committee to investigate. It was led by Linda Schwartz, the longtime commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. She served as an assistant secretary of the VA under then-President Barack Obama, leading the VA’s policy and planning initiatives.

The committee shared a 16-page report on the homes with Congress that contained findings about a lack of transparency and a VA leadership team that shirked responsibility for the facilities.

The committee found that 1,011 residents had died as of July 17. However, that number includes deaths at only 47 homes in 34 states. After months of calling state departments of public health and scouring data from the CDC and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the committee couldn’t obtain infection and fatality statistics for 115 veterans’ homes.

The committee is close to publishing an update, Schwartz said.

“We are in the process of doing another survey of the state homes. Our Members are very concerned,” she said in an email. “We are finding many of the homes are reporting increased numbers.”

As news of the deaths at state-run veterans’ homes started to break, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was questioned about what went wrong. In multiple interviews, he said he didn’t have direct authority over the homes.

In one interview with WSHU, an NPR affiliate, Wilkie said the VA had “moved into those veterans’ homes, even though by statute we have no ability to control or manage [them].”

These statements from Wilkie were “puzzling,” “disappointing” and “disturbing,” Schwartz’s committee wrote in their report.

In a final plan released Tuesday detailing the order in which veterans and staff will receive coronavirus vaccines as doses become more widely available, the VA wrote that it is not responsible for providing vaccines to state-run veterans’ homes. If state-run veterans’ homes want help vaccinating residents, they have to request assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The VA could then be called on to provide help under its Fourth Mission to serve as backup for the American medical system. 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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