05.07.20

SCHUMER REVEALS: AS COVID-19 SPREADS IN FACILITIES, VA HEALTHCARE SITES ACROSS UPSTATE NY HAVE REPORTED WEEKS OF SHORTAGES OR TOTAL LACK OF PPE; SENATOR DEMANDS VA IMMEDIATELY SEND SUPPLIES & PPE TO UPSTATE NY AND FIX DISTRIBUTION STRATEGY

A March 2020 Report Found That 21 Out Of 54 VA Facilities, Including Some In Upstate NY, Had Vastly Inadequate Supplies Of PPE And Would Run Out Within Weeks Or Days

Senator Says VA Has Moved Too Slowly In Providing Essential Protective Equipment To Frontline Healthcare Workers In NY VA Hospitals

Schumer to VA: Give Our Nation’s Heroes, Our Veterans, And VA Healthcare Workers The Resources They Need

After announcing a plan to stabilize the U.S. supply chain and provide critical oversight of the distribution of coronavirus (COVID-19) related materials, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to immediately send supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to Upstate New York facilities and update the Department of Veterans Affairs’ response to a March report from the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, which found that 21 out of 54 Veterans Health Administration (VHA) hospitals, including some in Upstate New York, would run out of PPE in the weeks following the report.

Schumer says that the VA’s response to the report has been too slow, jeopardizing the safety and health of its employees and veterans beneficiaries who come into contact with VA facilities, and that the agency must do more to address the PPE shortages.

“As the largest healthcare provider in the nation, it is baffling and deeply troubling that the Veterans Health Administration does not have a strategy in place to address the shortages of PPE in New York, the epicenter of this pandemic. The fact that this lack of effective action continues to let this deadly disease spread is beyond unacceptable,” said Senator Schumer. “Inexcusable foot-dragging from VA leadership has put Upstate New York’s world-class VA healthcare workers fighting on the frontlines and caring for our veterans and our veterans themselves at risk. When essential VA workers do not have PPE to care for our nation’s heroes, it jeopardizes not only the workers, but also the veterans who come into contact with them, a majority of which are seniors. The VA must act now to protect New York veterans, and VA workers who serve them, in their critical moment of need and work on a proactive plan to best protect the men and women who have served our county.”

According to news reports, even after the OIG report and following the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidance on the use of masks, the VA was slow to implement the use of masks, taking 10 days issue masks in its Buffalo and Batavia VA facilities, letting the virus spread unimpeded. VHA oversees more than 1,200 health care facilities in the U.S. and serves 775,000 New Yorkers, half of whom are seniors who are most at-risk for COVID-19 infection.

Although the VA, responsible for the health care of nine million military veterans, denied it was short of supplies and stressed that it follows federal health guidelines when rationing PPE, like masks and gloves, the agency’s inspector general’s report after visiting 230 facilities in March shows a radically different side of things. According to the report, facilities across the country were short-staffed, low on protective equipment like masks, shields, gowns, and sanitizer. The report also indicted that almost a third of all medical centers could improve their screening process for visitors. Meanwhile, more than a third of all medical centers interviewed reported shortages of supplies and equipment, including respirator masks. Some medical centers were vastly short-staffed in intensive care units. VA medical facilities in Buffalo and the Finger Lakes were part of the report which revealed Buffalo needed masks and gloves and the Finger Lakes VA needed N95 masks.

This issue is not just specific to the nation’s epicenter, New York State. According to an April 25th article, The Hill claims more than 6,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 400 have died. Similarly, current reporting claims that over 2,200 of the VA’s national workforce has contracted the virus and at least 23 employees have died.  Unfortunately, the federal government has not made the issue simpler. Therefore, Schumer said, it is all the more imperative that the VA is capable of providing employees with PPE as they frequently come into contact with some of New York’s most vulnerable residents.

Below is a breakdown of VHA sites by region:

Region

Number of VAs

Western NY

11

Finger Lakes

4

Southern Tier

7

Central NY

10

Capital Region

9

Hudson Valley

16

NYC

15

Long Island

7

Total

79

Senator Schumer’s letter to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs can be found below:

Dear Secretary Wilkie,

I write to request an immediate update on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) response to the findings in last month’s VA Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) troubling report highlighting potential shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in two Veterans Health Administration (VHA) health care facilities, including many in my home state of New York, the epicenter of the global pandemic. The OIG Report (#20-02221-120) issued on March 26th, 2020 summarizes the inadequacies of VA facilities to screen, test and prepare for COVID-19 cases after site visits to 237 VA facilities, including VA medical centers, community based outpatient clinics (CBOC) and community living centers (CLC). It is abhorrent and unacceptable that the VA has moved so slowly in providing essential protective equipment to its workers and patients, our nation’s heroes, at facilities throughout New York and raises serious concerns about the Department’s efforts to ensure the safety and health of its workforce and veteran beneficiaries in all its facilities across New York and the rest of the country.

The March 2020 report found that 21 out of 54 VA facilities interviewed held inadequate supplies of medication and key equipment needed to care for COVID-19 patients. This includes the Buffalo VAMC and VA Finger Lakes HCS in New York, who faced shortages of PPE within 14 to 28 days of the report’s issuance. According to a Buffalo News article published May 5th 2020, even after the VA report was issued and following the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) April 3rd announcement recommending the use of masks, “it wasn’t until April 13 when the VA started issuing masks” in the Buffalo and Batavia VA facilities, causing the disease to spread and patients and employees to be infected. According to an April 25th article, The Hill claims more than 6,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 400 have died.

The VHA serves over 20 million veterans nationally and 775,000 New Yorkers, over half of whom are seniors that are most at-risk for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death. Current reporting states that over 2,200 of the VA’s national workforce have contracted the coronavirus and at least 23 employees have died. The VA’s patient and caregiver populations are at serious and potentially fatal risk due to COVID-19, and this risk would be severely exacerbated by any deficiencies in PPE. The VA and VHA must provide an immediate update on these troubling reports and account for and correct any shortages of equipment and medical supplies that compromise the safety and well-being of VA workers and patients in New York.

We ask that the Department provide answers to the following questions:

  1. Since the Department’s March 2020 report, what steps has the VA and/or VHA taken to meet the identified shortages of PPE and other critical supplies and equipment, including ventilators, respirators and medications needed to administer the aforementioned equipment and treat COVID-19 patients at VA facilities?
  2. Do all 81 of New York’s VA inpatient and outpatient care sites and vet centers have sufficient supplies of PPE, other supplies, equipment and medicines to protect their workforce, safely provide care to VA patients and treat VA patients for COVID-19?
  3. Has the Department identified any VA facilities in New York that are at risk of PPE shortages or other supplies, equipment and/or medicines within the next two weeks? If yes, which and how will you address these potential shortages?
  4. What barriers if any continue to limit the VA or VHA in their ability to fully supply and equip VA facilities as they provide care to veterans being treated for or at risk of infection from COVID-19?

Thank you for your attention of this very important issue.

Sincerely,

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