Veteran Service Organization leaders representing millions of former service members and their families nationwide spoke with the president and Department of Veterans Affairs head Saturday about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The organizations, many of which represent the most vulnerable veterans, had a brief opportunity to hear from and ask a few questions of Secretary Robert Wilkie and President Donald Trump.
Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, told Connecting Vets his questions for the president and Wilkie surrounded telehealth options for veterans, including online mental health services.
“The isolation required now was a key part of my question,” Chenelly said. “How do we counteract the negative effects of that? How many veterans will take their own lives because of this isolation now? That’s a big reason we exist -- to keep them connected to make sure they don’t feel alone.”
He offered to make AMVETS posts safe locations to provide that help since VA hospitals and clinics are asking veterans to stay home and are moving regular in-person appointments online to protect patients from the virus.
“We would love for the administration to be able to leverage the volunteers, locations and expertise that we have to help,” Chenelly said. “We’re working on ways we can help.”
Calls to the Veteran Crisis Hotline were up about 12 percent, with about 20 percent of all calls now directly related to the coronavirus, Wilkie said on the call, but he assured VSOs that the crisis call centers were adequately staffed and continuing to answer each incoming call.
AMVETS was one of the national service organizations most critical of an early lack of communication from VA about the virus.
“Every day really matters right now, especially when we’re talking about mental wellbeing amid all this uncertainty,” Chenelly said. “This was a pretty good step forward in communication. Hopefully, that communication continues.”
Chenelly said VSO leaders heard from Trump and Wilkie that VA is deploying medical teams into the boroughs of New York City and New Orleans, areas with the most concentrated groups of infected veterans. It’s something Chenelly said, “we’ve not really seen before.”
Wilkie assured the veteran groups that though VA has a fourth mission to serve as a backup healthcare system to the American public in times of emergency, its first mission is to veterans, and that will not change if VA is called upon to help civilians.
While some have questioned the tens of thousands of vacancies throughout the VA system, Chenelly said Wilkie told the VSOs VA medical facility staffing and equipment is adequate and VA so far has not needed to move staff around to meet demand.
Wilkie told the veteran groups the virus response is not taxing VA’s overall capacity.
Veteran policy advocacy group, Concerned Veterans For America, which was also on the call, sent a letter to the president this week with recommendations on how to maintain veterans’ care amid the crisis. CVA has ties to the Americans for Prosperity political action committee.