Pharmacists CJ Ludwig, front, and Chris Elizagaray, back, pull doses of the coronavirus vaccine from vials at a Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Pharmacists CJ Ludwig, front, and Chris Elizagaray, back, pull doses of the coronavirus vaccine from vials at a Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES )

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs must offer coronavirus vaccines to 24 million more people after President Joe Biden signed a bill into law Wednesday requiring the agency to vaccinate all veterans and spouses.

Biden signed the Saves Lives Act, which passed through Congress unanimously. The bill removes legal barriers that prevented the VA from vaccinating veterans who aren’t enrolled in the department, as well as their spouses and caregivers.

The action expands the population that the VA is responsible for vaccinating from about 9 million to 33 million, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said. The department will need a greater supply of vaccines to reach the larger population, he said, equating to an increase of about 400,000 doses each week.

“Meeting the task of vaccinating this expanded population will be a tremendous undertaking for the VA and will require a significant increase in our allocation of vaccine supply, but I am confident that VA’s workforce is up to the task,” McDonough said in a statement Wednesday.

In the months that vaccines have been available, the VA has received about 200,000 doses each week and focused its vaccination efforts on VA employees and the 6 million veterans who actively use VA health care. As of Wednesday, the department had fully vaccinated about 1.6 million people.

There are 3 million veterans who are enrolled in the VA but don’t actively use the department for health care. To vaccinate those veterans, the department needs about 100,000 more doses each week, the VA said.

To reach the additional 24 million people that the department is now responsible for vaccinating, the VA needs about 600,000 doses each week.

When Congress passed the Saves Lives Act, it urged the Department of Health and Human Services to allot more vaccines to the VA as the supply chain allows. However, it remained uncertain Wednesday whether the weekly doses sent to the VA would increase.

In addition to all veterans, spouses and caregivers, the new law also tasks the VA with vaccinating overseas veterans who rely on the Foreign Medical Program, as well as recipients of the VA’s CHAMPVA program. The CHAMPVA program serves spouses and children of veterans who are permanently and totally disabled due to a service-related disability.

Under the new law, “veteran” means any person who served in the armed forces and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.

The VA said it would launch a pilot program at “select VA medical centers,” where individuals who became eligible under the new law can get vaccinated. A list of those medical centers was unavailable Wednesday. 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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