VA refuses to give Congress more information on its COVID-19 cases, lawmakers say

Photo credit Photo by 1st Sgt. Rodolfo Armando Barrios Quinones

For months, Capitol Hill lawmakers have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs for more information on its COVID-19 cases, particularly a breakdown of cases by race, after some veterans could be at higher risk.

But so far, VA has refused to provide that data to Congress.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Monday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he asked for the data June 15. The House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., asked for the same information on May 28. But the leading members of both committees have not received responses from the department they're charged with overseeing. 

In the letter, Tester cites a July 23 Connecting Vets story, which included data from VA showing that Black and Hispanic patients make up nearly half of all VA COVID-19 cases, though they comprise only about 23% of all VA patients. That data was provided after multiple requests.

"This is a troubling disparity, and VA needs to share this data directly with Congress in order to properly exercise our oversight role and address any disparities through legislation, if needed," Tester wrote, saying he was "alarmed" VA has failed to provide the data so far, including for a July 22 roundtable meeting on women and minority veterans, which VA officials attended. 

Tester said his office knows VA has the information on hand, but the information is not available to Congress or the public, only VA employees.

VA also continues to "assert to the committee and to the media" that there are no racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths among veterans, only in the groups testing positive.

Previously, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets the mortality rate for VA patients infected with the virus "does not differ by race," though she did not provide any data. 

"VA must make this data available to both Congress and the public so that its assertions on racial or ethnic disparities in COVID-19 veteran deaths can be verified," Tester wrote. "The department's failure to provide its data and resources on COVID-19 disparities among veterans in a timely manner hampers our ability to monitor VA’s response to this pandemic and any impacts on minority veterans, and respond accordingly."

Tester asked VA to provide the information by August 15 and brief committee staff and other lawmakers' offices by August 28. 

As of Monday morning, VA was tracking 39,641 total COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including 5,089 active cases and 2,140 patient deaths. VA also recorded 3,876 staff cases of the virus and 42 staff deaths. Since March, VA has administered more than 473,633 COVID-19 tests nationwide.

VA's patient mortality rate was about 5.4%, higher than the 3.3% death rate among Americans overall. 

Black, Hispanic veterans make up 23% of VA patients but nearly half of all VA COVID-19 cases

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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