Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Department of Veterans Affairs COVID-19 Response Hearing
Congreswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs COVID-19 Response:
Today we welcome Dr. Richard Stone, Acting Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, accompanied by Dr. Kameron Matthews, Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Services.
It has been almost one year since the Department of Veterans Affairs had its first case of Covid-19, and in that time much has changed: at VA, across the country, and around the world.
Tragically, VA has seen over 10,000 deaths, including 130 employees.
This heartbreaking number highlights how important this work is, as we continue our oversight of the funding and the policies that are needed to keep our veterans and workers safe.
As the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., VA has an enormous responsibility to our veterans and their families, our health care providers and other employees, and to the nation as a whole through VA’s “fourth mission” to assist with public health needs.
When we last held a hearing on VA’s Covid response in May, there were some areas of deep concern, and some areas that were improving.
I and other members were very troubled by what was happening at the time with regards to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, the standard of Covid treatments provided to our veterans, and the need to make testing available to all.
While some of the problems were due to the overall mismanagement of the pandemic by the Trump White House, there were problems in VA’s management of the pandemic as well.
Poor communication, inconsistent guidance, and unclear strategies were frequent topics we discussed, and have continued to discuss with VA leadership over the past year.
I am looking forward to hearing how these areas have progressed, and what lessons have been learned since then.
It has been promising to see the data on active cases and hospitalizations pointing in the right direction in recent weeks.
But I don’t want us to lose sight of the work that still has to be done.
Where are there still challenges? Where can we do better?
Because our veterans deserve not just “better”, they deserve the best.
Certainly, there are some things that are fundamentally different from where we were last spring, such as the fact that we now have vaccines, which bring great hope and also great operational challenges.
VA has recently hit a milestone of having vaccinated over one million individuals, a number that continues to climb.
Getting people vaccinated is critical to stopping the spread of this disease, and it is heartening to see that so many veterans have turned to VA as a trusted health care resource.
Undertaking such a significant public health effort requires a lot of coordination between VA leadership, individual VA facilities, and other federal partners like the CDC, as well as the doctors, nurses, administrative staff, and others at the VA who are out there every day helping our veterans.
I want to make sure that we are giving VA all the tools we can to vaccinate the widest universe of veterans and that no one is getting unfairly left behind.
Our subcommittee has fought to make sure that VA has the resources it needs throughout this pandemic, by providing almost $20 billion in emergency funding in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act.
The bulk of that money was for patient care and other health care needs, in order to enable VA to provide the best and safest health care possible during a pandemic, such as by expanding its telehealth capacity.
And, this funding allowed VA to increase its efforts to help groups of veterans uniquely impacted by the pandemic, such as homeless veterans.
This subcommittee has kept a close eye on the execution of that funding and what additional resources will be required to sustain needed staffing and service level expansions
It is also clear that the pandemic has had a ripple effect on health care at VA, as veterans delayed non-urgent care, or more veterans turned to the VA for their care, and that will bring further costs down the road.
Clearly, there is more to do to make sure that VA is able to protect the health and economic security of all veterans, which is why I am pleased that President Biden has put forward an American Rescue Plan that recognizes the needs of our veterans and those who care for them.
The truth is, this pandemic is not over. Particularly as we learn about new and potentially more contagious variants of the disease, we must remain vigilant.
That means that while it’s good news that active cases and hospitalizations are dropping, and that more and more Americans are getting the vaccine, there remains the possibility for another wave of cases.
Preparedness is critical – having PPE, testing supplies, and staff, is just as important today as it was in the beginning of the pandemic.
So today’s hearing will give us valuable insight on where things stand.