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VA hospitals in New York.

VA hospitals in New York. (VA)

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs started its mission over the weekend to serve as backup for the American medical system by opening beds in New York City to non-veteran patients.

The VA opened 50 beds in Manhattan and Brooklyn at hospitals run by the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. It freed 35 beds in acute care and 15 in an intensive care for patients who aren’t infected with the coronavirus in order for community hospitals to open space for coronavirus patients.

Five non-veterans transferred into VA facilities Sunday, the department said.

The department determined opening beds to non-veterans would not negatively affect veteran care.

“VA is proud to assist the City of New York while continuing its primary mission of caring for our nation’s veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the VA for help after the state of New York requested federal assistance. The state has experienced explosive growth in its coronavirus cases, reaching about 59,000 Monday and nearly 1,000 deaths.

The VA New York Harbor Healthcare System was treating 45 veterans with coronavirus as of Sunday, and 14 of them had been admitted to the hospital. Nationwide, the VA was treating 778 veterans who had contracted the virus, and 16 had died.

Lawmakers pleaded with the VA for weeks to begin its “fourth mission” — to support civilian hospitals and provide emergency medical care to all Americans in times of crises. Wilkie vowed to start that mission when called on by President Donald Trump or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., praised Wilkie’s decision to step in. Rose, a combat veteran who represents all of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn, had urged the agency for help.

“We drastically need to increase capacity at our hospitals, and utilizing VA facilities in that effort makes sense and is the right thing to do,” Rose said. “Calling for the VA to embark on its fourth mission isn’t something I proposed lightly, but we’re in unprecedented times.”

Despite concerns from some lawmakers and advocates, Wilkie has repeatedly insisted the department has an adequate supply of equipment, beds and personal protective equipment to handle a surge of coronavirus patients, even if called on to treat non-veterans.

Air Force veteran Cherissa Jackson, a leader with the national veterans organization AMVETS, said the VA had last been activated to serve as the country’s backup medical system during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The moment is now upon the agency to once again rise to the occasion, and we are confident it will,” Jackson said in a statement.

Other states can request federal support through FEMA, their regional emergency coordinator or their local departments of health and human services, according to the VA.

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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