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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs has immediately enrolled veterans into its health care system in areas where eligible VA patients have refused coronavirus vaccines.

In one area of New York, about 1,000 veterans over age 75 refused to be vaccinated, said Dr. Richard Stone, acting undersecretary for health. Stone has advised local VA leaders to enroll eligible veterans “on the spot” in those situations so the vaccines don’t go to waste.

Stone mentioned the issue during a hearing Friday of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. Stone did not say how many veterans have been offered vaccines and refused them, or how many veterans have enrolled in the department solely to be vaccinated.

“We do recognize areas of the country where veterans are not coming in to get their vaccines,” Stone said. “In one area of New York alone … 1,000 veterans over 75 said, ‘No thank you.’ That surprised us.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said veterans in her state have been turned down for vaccinations from the department because they’re not enrolled in VA health care. In response, Stone said that the VA’s first focus is on its current patients, because of the limited vaccine supply in most locations.

More than 9 million veterans are enrolled in the VA, but only 6 million actively use the VA for their health care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services has allotted the VA 6 million vaccines for its patients, as well as 400,000 for VA employees and 23,000 for Department of Homeland Security workers.

“So, for those that are enrolled and have depended on us as a safety net for them, they are our first priority,” Stone said.

As of Friday, the department operated 215 sites that had distributed at least one dose of the vaccine to 1.9 million veterans, VA employees and DHS employees. The agency receives about 140,000 doses each week. Stone said the sites were distributing all doses within days of receiving them.

However, the agency has experienced trouble getting vaccines to veterans in rural places. In a few cases, the department has flown vaccines on small aircraft into rural areas in Montana and Alaska. Yesterday, the VA sent a plane to a small island in Alaska, where health care workers vaccinated 50 veterans.

“We are not doing as well reaching rural veterans as we would like to,” Stone said. “This is tough, herculean effort.”

The department is keeping track of “vaccine hesitancy,” said Dr. Kameron Matthews, assistant undersecretary for health. Rural areas are where veterans are refusing vaccinations the most, she said. Black and Hispanic veterans are accepting vaccines at higher rates than white veterans, Stone said.

Several lawmakers expressed frustration Friday about the limited supply of vaccines and how far the VA still must go to immunize its patients. Wasserman Schultz encouraged the department to “think creatively” to reach as many veterans in America as possible, despite many not being enrolled in VA health care.

“I think some of the frustration you may feel from members of the committee are a lot of people aren’t getting vaccinated yet,” Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., said. “My plea, my hope, my prayer is we can get more of these doses administered in a more rapid fashion as soon as possible.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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