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The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on veterans

By Brett Copeland, Executive Director for VHPI

The Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute (VHPI) joined Cliff Kelley on America’s Heroes Radio Group to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted veterans and whether the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could effectively fulfill its ‘fourth mission.’

“In times of crisis, the VA is tasked with being the United States’ backup healthcare system,” said Jasper Craven, a journalist and VHPI fellow.

“As the days and weeks have gone by, the VA’s readiness has come into question as the Trump administration has largely failed to be transparent about its staffing issues as well as the availability of personal protective equipment even while VA staff are raising the alarm.”

Craven and fellow journalist and author Suzanne Gordon spoke about their report in The American Prospect that documented how the VA’s chronic staffing shortages have put veterans and VA employees at-risk. Despite the agency’s 50,000 staff vacancies, Gordon said the VA was still better-prepared to meet the crisis than much of the private sector.

“Medical staff in the private sector are being laid off or furloughed in droves rather than being retrained to help with hospitals’ immediate needs,” said Gordon. “The VA is the nation’s largest integrated care network with more than 1,200 sites of care and they are able to respond more nimbly to meet immediate needs by shifting staff, patients, or supplies from site-to-site.”

The VA is also continuing to hire staff, unlike private sector hospitals whose budgets rely largely on elective surgeries or other fee-for-service procedures.

Prior to the global pandemic, many government healthcare institutions, including the VA’s Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Defense’s medical corps, had faced multiple threats of privatization. At the time, Trump administration officials insisted that the private sector could absorb the veteran and military populations without a problem.

“The illusion that the private sector, especially in crises, can handle the full needs of the veteran community has been seriously called into question,” said Brett Cope- land, VHPI’s executive director. “Luckily, both the Community Care program and attempts to outsource military families and retirees to the private sector have been halted on military institutions.”

The panel expressed hope that decisions to leave 50,000 positions vacant at the Department of Veterans Affairs and attempts by the Department of Defense to eliminate 18,000 medical professionals would be reexamined after the immediate crisis has passed.

“The VA can complete its first mission to care for veterans as well as address the global pandemic,” said Gordon.

“But only if it has the resources, staff, and employee protections it requires.”

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