In November, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that Covid-19 had killed more than 4,000 VA patients since the start of the pandemic. At more than 5 percent, the mortality rate among veterans is more than double the average rate of the rest of the country.
Previous reporting has shown that the VA struggled to obtain personal protective equipment and purchased unverified treatments during the pandemic’s first wave. American Oversight recently obtained documents backing up this reporting and adding to the picture of an agency struggling during the crisis.
The records show that in April and May, VA officials told members of Congress that the agency didn’t need aid. A response to questions from Sen. Jack Reed stated that as of April 14, “VA has adequate amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizer and medical equipment in every facility.” Talking points from May 27 for a phone call with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz two weeks later stated that the VA had sufficient funding for the immediate crisis.
However, notes for an April 27 call between VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and the CEO of 3M, a supplier of N95 masks, show that the VA’s demand for 3M masks had increased more than 6,000 percent and the agency was struggling to make up the shortfall. The notes read, “We understand that FEMA/White House has levied three Defense Production Act rated contract agreements for 3M, shifting all their production to support the National Emergency, which has greatly impacted the Department’s existing supply chain agreements.”
In May, ProPublica reported that as PPE became rare, the agency hired contractors with no relevant experience to find respirators and masks and struck deals for equipment that fueled price gouging. In the meantime, multiple VA staff members died of Covid-19.
The documents we obtained show that the VA still lacked adequate equipment in June. An information paper circulated on June 6 in preparation for a July call with veterans service organizations acknowledged that the VA was reusing PPE in a manner that was “not the ideal way to use this equipment.” An email sent to Acting Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers from VA adviser Debora Scher on June 28 mentioned that the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, and an organization (the name of which was redacted) had been assisting the VA with obtaining PPE. Scher asked that Powers and Wilkie call Sununu to thank him for his efforts, referencing the “ongoing scarcity of PPE” and the VA’s interest in continuing to procure PPE through New Hampshire.
But as the VA struggled to accrue enough equipment, it was also funneling hundreds of thousands into unproven treatments. In May, members of Congress questioned the VA’s $200,000 order of hydroxychloroquine — the antimalarial drug misguidedly touted by President Donald Trump as a miracle Covid-19 treatment — pointing out that veterans who were treated with the drug died at a higher rate than those who weren’t.
The documents provide more details on how the VA devoted considerable resources to a questionable treatment, showing that on May 11, Wilkie was given talking points about hydroxychloroquine in preparation for an upcoming interview. The points said, “To date, VA has spent approximately $2 million … on hydroxychloroquine for both COVID-19 and non COVID-19 treatments during this time frame.” The document noted that prior to the coronavirus crisis, the VA dispensed more than 1 million doses of hydroxychloroquine per month, primarily to treat long-term conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. However, from February to April, the VA bought more than 6 million tablets of hydroxychloroquine to meet “non COVID-19 and COVID-19 requirements.”
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