The rather startling news that the Veterans Health Administration managed to keep more of their senior veterans safe from COVID-19 infections than many other long-term care facilities in the U.S. marks a welcome sea-change in the way the federal government cares for those who served their country in the armed forces.
“We’re probably in better shape than any other health care system in the country,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told journalists during a virtual editorial board meeting on Thursday sponsored by Inside Sources.
“We were the first ones to take dramatic steps. We stopped elective surgeries. We stopped visitors and family from coming into the hospitals,” he said. “It was a sad decision, because the majority of our veterans served in World War II and Korea. But we were able to protect them.”
Wilkie admitted that the VA was “not immune” from the coronavirus pandemic. “Of 26,000 veterans who were infected, over 19,000 made full recoveries. We lost about 1,700 out of 9.5 million.”
But unlike many senior care facilities in the private sector, the VA tested all of its employees in the 134 nursing homes it operates, and never ran out of personal protective equipment. “And if this boomerangs back, we are stepping up our support,” he added.
Just a short time ago, it seemed unlikely that the VA would take the lead on any medical standards, let alone infection control. But the secretary said that unlike his department, many state-run veterans hospitals—such as the Holyoke Soldiers Home in Massachusetts, where 100 residents have died since March 1—“did not have emergency operations in place when the crisis hit. We were giving them advice on infection control as late as Feb. 1.”
And not only advice. Wilkie noted that the VA “helped rescue a lot of state veterans homes and their patients” when they became overwhelmed by coronavirus cases.
VA press secretary Christina Noel told the Military Times that the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 at the VA is “at its lowest point of the pandemic and down more than half since March.” She added that 261 veterans are currently in intensive care, with another 440 receiving acute care out of nearly 6,000 active coronavirus cases.
Wilkie says he has “walked the post” and visited 47 states during his almost two years at the helm of the VA. During that time, he pointed out, over 8,000 employees have been terminated for poor performance and the VA has ramped up its efforts, from expanding veterans’ access to private care and suicide prevention, to increasing telemedicine appointments and digitizing patient records.
The secretary added that the VA’s “4th Mission”—after providing veterans with the health care, benefits and services they’ve earned—is acting as a “backstop for local communities,” such as opening their doors to civilian patients during the COVID crisis.
This is a far cry from just six years ago, when veterans were routinely put on waiting lists so long that many of them died before they even got to see a doctor. “This is not your grandfather’s VA. It’s a less top-heavy department,” Wilkie said.
For Virginia, which has the second highest percentage of veterans in the nation, and particularly for the Fredericksburg region, which is awaiting the arrival of the largest veterans health care center in the U.S. by 2025, the turnabout of this formerly dysfunctional federal agency is good news indeed.