US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie is finding out what it means to be on wartime footing against a virus. He is overseeing the VA’s internal response to COVID-19 while deciding how to fulfil the VA’s fourth mission: providing reinforcement for the nation’s healthcare system in a national emergency. Meanwhile, he’s facing hostilities on a third front: criticism of his efforts so far.
In late February, when lawmakers asked whether the VA needed more resources to fight COVID-19, Wilkie said no. He told NPR on March 19 that “we are poised for the onslaught.” But on March 13, 2020, the VA was being attacked for not releasing a comprehensive emergency response to the incipient pandemic. Wilkie countered, “Before there was a single confirmed case in the US,” he wrote in a recent op-ed piece for Military Times , “the VA was already conducting emergency preparedness exercises.”
In the NPR interview, Wilkie said the VA had undertaken “a very aggressive public health response at an early stage.” Now, the VA has added other measures. The VA, he said, was the first health system to stop people from entering its facilities without being questioned or tested, and the first to adopt the “hard decision” of a no-visitor rule for veterans in nursing homes. Every veteran who comes to a VA facility with flu-like symptoms is screened. Further, via tweets and blog posts, Wilkie is “inviting” retired medical personnel back to work to help deal with the pandemic.
The VA is also the “buttress force,” Wilkie says, for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Department of Health and Human Services if they need medical professionals for crises. “We plan for that every day,” he says. “We are gaming out emergency preparedness scenarios and we stand ready when the President needs us to expand our mission.” But in The American Prospect , Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven, both fellows at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, write that “one quiet action is ominous”—the VA website has deleted any mention of the department’s credo of caring for civilians in times of crisis.
According to Gordon and Craven, on Wednesday Wilkie “came out of the woodwork” to express the department’s readiness to help in the crisis. The VA has established 19 emergency operations centers across the country, Wilkie says, and has stopped elective surgeries to free up thousands of beds. He touts the agency’s flexibility, saying it’s prepared to move resources around the country as needed. “Some veterans hospitals have not been impacted [by the virus],” Wilkie said. “So, I’m not going to keep 500 respirators in the middle of a state that has one veteran with the infection, when I can use that in Seattle or New Orleans, or New York City.”
Wilkie says the VA has stockpiled equipment and its supply chain is stable. However, in the NPR interview, Mary Louise Kelly said the NPR VA correspondent had been hearing complaints about lack of gear, such as masks. When pressed on his claim that the VA had adequate protective supplies, Wilkie said those complaints “have not reached us.” In fact, he said, “I can tell you that the arrangements that we have made on both the masks side and also on the testing side—we’re in a very good place.”