Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Hearing on VA's Response to COVID-19
Congresswoman 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' response to COVID-19:
Today’s hearing is on VA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We welcome the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, who is joined by Dr. Paul Lawrence, the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration, Mr. Jon Rychalski, the Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer, and Dr. Jennifer MacDonald, Chief Consultant to the Deputy Under Secretary for Health.
Thank you all for being here today. I cannot underscore enough the importance of this hearing as we strive to take care of our veterans and do everything in our power to keep our frontline health care workers safe.
This hearing is an important opportunity to provide oversight of the almost $20 billion Congress has appropriated to VA in emergency funding in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act to assist VA in combating the pandemic.
The bulk of the funding we have provided, $14.5 billion, is for direct patient care, and it is our duty to oversee that funding to ensure that VA is administering, and Veterans are receiving, the utmost and highest quality of care, especially during these unprecedented times. With that money, we expect VA to provide enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, to every single person working in a VHA facility and to their patients, when necessary.
As soon as one covid-positive patient walks through the door of a VA facility, every VA employee working there is at risk for contracting the virus, whether they are directly treating the patient in the covid-19 ward or not.
I understand the shortage of supplies and unstable supply chain issues contributed to VA’s implementation of austerity measures for providing PPE, but only providing PPE to frontline VA healthcare workers was unacceptable, especially given the amount of interaction other VA employees have with patients who may or may not display symptoms of the virus.
I am glad that VA has started to make steps in the right direction after unrelenting backlash from Congress on the irresponsible PPE policy, and has since updated it to reflect the need to provide one mask for every employee, regardless of direct patient interaction or not. However, despite this being the policy on paper, I am hearing many concerns at the field level that it is not being implemented consistently, so many veterans and employees are still left unprotected.
VA must make sure it is communicating effectively. It is not enough to issue guidance regarding the health and safety of veterans and VA employees – VA must ensure that such guidance is being adhered to. Furthermore, VA must do everything in its power to meet conventional CDC standards in PPE usage. Any austerity or contingency measure in place on PPE usage leaves veterans and health care workers vulnerable to infection.
This is especially egregious when the President has it within his full authority to fix the problem of a lack of supplies and PPE by fully invoking the Defense Production Act so that American businesses can completely fill the gap in the supply chain for these vital resources. VA would no longer have to compete for scarce supplies, like it currently does, and VA could revert back to conventional practices in administering PPE.
Further exacerbating the problem, scarce resources create the ripe conditions for price gouging, which many companies are taking advantage of. A ProPublica piece published a couple of weeks ago shed light on the issue of small, inexperienced contractors charging exorbitant prices for scarce PPE, and VA agreeing to pay that price because of how desperate the situation was. I understand these are unprecedented times, but we need to do everything we can to protect our veterans and our frontline health care workers who are putting their lives at risk to combat this deadly virus, while still protecting taxpayer dollars to do so.
Additionally, within the funding Congress appropriated, we also want to make sure VA is providing adequate testing to Veterans and also to its employees. I cannot stress enough the importance of testing, as it will be the only way we can get a handle on how the virus is spreading and where. We need adequate testing to make Americans feel safe. We do not have a consistent, comprehensive testing policy at VA right now and that must change. This is especially important as VA makes the decision to reopen its facilities around the country beyond emergency and urgent care. VA has already begun reopening at 20 facilities, and plans to reopen additional facilities and start to resume more services in a phased process. We need to make sure we have sound policies in place, so we don’t see spikes in the virus as we move forward.
Lastly, when veterans are at VA hospitals, we need to make sure they are being treated with the utmost quality of care. More and more information is coming out about how ineffective and potentially deadly the antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, is to covid-positive patients. What is astounding to me is VA is still insisting on providing it to veterans, yet VA cannot effectively communicate the circumstances in which the drug is administered.
We clearly have a lot of ground to cover today. Thank you all for being here this morning, and I look forward to your testimony, Mr. Secretary.