Veterans Affairs Documents Provide Glimpse Into Agency’s Early Struggles

Since the pandemic began, more than 10,000 Veterans Affairs patients have died from Covid-19. Previous reporting, as well as documents published by American Oversight, showed that the VA struggled in the spring and summer of 2020 to obtain adequate amounts of personal protective equipment. Recently, American Oversight obtained more documents that provide additional details about the agency’s early pandemic difficulties. 

The documents include complaints from the National Nurses United union that alleged the VA was not providing nurses with sufficient personal protective equipment, thus increasing their risks of contracting the coronavirus. In one email, sent on March 13, 2020, the group said that the “VA is either unwilling and/or unprepared to answer basic questions that will ensure the safety of RNs and the patients who they are taking care of.”

A report on the results of outpatient services surveys from early March highlighted veterans’ complaints as well as praise for the VA’s Covid-19 measures. One veteran noted a lack of proper coronavirus screenings at a VA facility in Modesto, Calif., while others expressed concern that certain mitigation measures, such as entrance closures, limited the ability of individuals with disabilities to access medical services. One 91-year-old veteran wrote that having just one entrance open at a facility in Vermont could lead to risky overcrowding, and some veterans also raised concerns on Twitter that the VA wasn’t conducting adequate testing. 

These records also contain VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s schedules for the first three months of 2020, which feature regular White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings. Communications between top VA officials and Paul Kim, the executive director of the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Emergency Management, included a Feb. 18 message from the Department of Health and Human Services stating that the crisis was anticipated to last for several months and a Feb. 19 message from Kim about the VHA’s emergency preparedness.