VA leader points to FEMA for supply shortages, but FEMA denies rerouting protective gear

Coronavirus
Photo credit Photo by Chief Petty Officer Gary Keen/Commander, U.S. 2nd Fleet

A top Department of Veterans Affairs leader blamed FEMA for a lack of personal protective equipment in VA's massive healthcare system. But FEMA officials on Monday denied they rerouted supplies.

As the number of veterans testing positive for the coronavirus continues to grow, VA leadership is now publicly recognizing protective gear shortages at department hospitals after weeks of staff reports and internal memos showing severe rationing. 

Over the course of those weeks, VA officials denied any shortages or rationing again and again. They called accounts of a lack of supplies from VA nurses and other hospital staff  "false allegations." 

In response, VA medical staff protested between shifts. Union leaders accused the department of endangering veteran patients and staff over, among other things, a lack of protective equipment. Those accusations prompted a Department of Labor investigation. 

As of April 27, 435 VA patients had died of the coronavirus and more than 6,900 have tested positive. Among VA staff, more than 2,000 have tested positive and at least 20 have died. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, Veterans Health Administration chief Dr. Richard Stone said that some department hospitals have been forced to adopt "austerity levels" of supplies as FEMA rerouted supplies meant for VA to the rapidly depleting federal emergency stockpile.

"I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared," Stone told the Post, adding that the VA's 170 medical centers and more than 1,200 clinics were burning through about 200,000 masks each day. 

Last week, FEMA provided 500,000 masks to VA after a request from Secretary Robert Wilkie, the second such shipment in as many weeks. 

Those shipments allowed Stone to lift some of the rationing and limitations on medical staff leaving them with one mask per week. Instead, some of those employees will receive one mask per day. 

VHA leader changes protective equipment rationing, says staff get one mask per day

But FEMA denies it rerouted any of VA's supplies. 

"FEMA does not, has not and will not divert orders of personal protective equipment from our federal, state and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so," FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said in a statement. "In support of the Department of Veterans Affairs and our nation's veterans, to date FEMA has coordinated shipments of more than 4.3 million respirators, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country." 

VA is still planning for future shortages, though. An internal memo obtained by Connecting Vets showed that regional directors were being told to plan for rationing. 

Lawmakers have called on President Donald Trump to use the Defense Procurement Act to secure protective equipment for VA medical staff, working in the nation's largest healthcare system which is also tasked with backing up America's healthcare system in times of crisis. 

Senators call on White House to provide coronavirus protective equipment for VA

VA says it serves about 9 million veterans, about half of which are 65 or older, a population at elevated risk for the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Of all the United States COVID-19 deaths so far, one in five is a veteran older than 70, VA data shows. 

VA's coronavirus response plan included that as many as 40 percent of its staff could be absent because of the virus. Last week, VA lauded a jump in hiring -- adding 3,000 new workers in recent weeks, including more than 900 registered nurses. But VA entered the pandemic with more than 43,000 vacancies departmentwide. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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