VA secretary refuses to answer questions about COVID-19 supply shortages, lawmakers say

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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie refuses to share information on the agency's supply of personal protective equipment with Congress after widespread reports from journalists and VA medical staff that hospitals are rationing supplies, lawmakers said this week. 

For weeks, VA medical staff and veteran patients have told Connecting Vets they were rationing masks, gowns and other supplies, provided expired equipment or were going without. 

Internal VA memos and communications also showed the department was running low, rationing and facing a "severe" shortage. 

But publicly, VA has repeatedly denied any shortages at all, insisting that all of its staff have the "appropriate" personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Lawmakers in Congress have also now heard the reports of shortages nationwide -- a problem not unique to VA facilities during the pandemic that has left most healthcare systems scrambling. 

But what Congress and journalists have heard from VA staff doesn't match what VA leaders, including Wilkie, have repeatedly said -- there are no shortages. 

"We have found that the information reported to the committees through VA's daily and weekly briefings -- especially with regard to availability of personal protective equipment -- stands in stark contrast to what we have heard from VA employees and read in the media regarding PPE shortages at VA medical facilities," lawmakers wrote. 

Now, members of Congress want answers. But they say the department has refused to provide the necessary information. 

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and the Office of Management and Budget, urging the administration to "allow VA to cooperate with Congress and provide key documents essential to empower lawmakers with the ability to aid America's veterans." 

Despite "dozens" of requests for the information, the committee hasn't received official documents from VA "that would help explain alarming disclosures VA employees have made" about the PPE shortages, Takano and other Democrats on the committee wrote. 

VA leadership told lawmakers the budget office was "delaying the release" of the documents. 

"These additional bureaucratic delays have created a logjam in which the documentation we have repeatedly requested has not been provided, and the lack of specificity in VA’s ongoing briefings for the Committee, not only poses risks of potential harm to veterans, but also leads us to a simple conclusion — your administration has hamstrung VA’s ability to ensure Congress is fully informed of the full extent to which it is prepared to care for veterans and fulfill VA’s fourth mission of augmenting the civilian health care system," lawmakers wrote. 

"We are concerned that while VA has consistently reported to the committees since March 19 that it has enough PPE supply on hand to last at least two weeks, we are hearing from a growing number of our constituents employed by VA medical facilities that drastic actions have been taken -- including issuing only one facemask or N95 respirator per week to staff caring for vulnerable veterans ... If VA does not provide ... timely information, we cannot ... work with VA to minimize the harm to our veterans caused by this pandemic." 


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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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