Tester Delivers $60 Million for VA Coronavirus Testing, Pushes VA to Protect Veterans

Ranking Member secures $60 million for VA diagnostic testing; lays out efforts to ensure safety of veterans and VA staff

(U.S. Senate) – Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester is working to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has the capacity and resources it needs to efficiently carry out their mission, and protect veterans and local communities from the COVID-19 outbreak—including securing $60 million for the agency in today’s Senate package. As a part of VA’s Fourth Mission, the Department may be called upon to expand health care access to individuals responding to or affected by a natural disaster or national emergency.

The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan, Tester-backed coronavirus relief package to deliver critical resources to combat the outbreak, and it will now be sent to the President’s desk for his signature.

“It’s imperative that the Department of Veterans Affairs has the necessary resources to keep veterans, staff, and communities across the country safe,” said Ranking Member Tester. “Today’s bill is an important step to do just that, with $60 million headed to VA to ensure testing for everyone who needs it. But we can’t stop there: VA must be properly prepared to respond to the unique needs of our nation’s veterans, and ready to activate its critical Fourth Mission to support all Americans if it becomes necessary.”

Ranking Member Tester is leading the Committee’s effort to ensure VA is well-equipped to handle the emergent threat of the novel coronavirus in the following areas:

  • Securing Financial Support: Tester voted in support of H.R. 6201, a coronavirus response bill containing $60 million for VA diagnostic testing. Congress is working on an additional funding package to expand access to COVID-19 testing and treatment at VA, including through telehealth. 
  • Activating VA’s Fourth Mission: Although VA has yet to activate any Fourth Mission capabilities to expand health care access to non-veterans, Tester believes VA needs to be prepared in the event it is necessary to expand its current mission. VA must be ready to treat first responders and civilians, while maintaining high-quality care for veterans if local health systems become overwhelmed.
  • Providing Adequate Testing and Supplies: VA facilities currently decide where to send COVID-19 tests based on the quickest option for their area: state labs, private labs, or the VA lab in Palo Alto. Tester is encouraging partnerships between VA and private testing companies, in order to develop in-house testing capabilities at VA facilities and make sure that all veterans have access to quick test results. The Senator is also pushing VA to create more negative air pressure rooms, expand ventilator access, and provide additional respirator masks.
  • Bolstering the Workforce: Tester is working to bolster the Department’s health workforce by bringing in retired doctors and health professionals to help support VA’s unique mission. This effort includes recruiting medical students to help triage patients and ensuring that VA providers have child care options during school closures.
  • Ensuring Transparency: Tester believes that efficient communication is the key to transparency. He led his colleagues in a letter to the Veterans Health Administration’s Executive in Charge, Dr. Richard Stone, on VA’s COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts, including information on VHA’s coordination with other agencies, need for additional resources, and protections for VA health care workers. Tester led a follow-up letter regarding VA’s government coordination, emergency supplies and respiratory support, Fourth Mission, patient screening and isolation, communications, and funding requirements.
  • Protecting Student Veterans: To ensure VA has the resources it needs to support student veterans, Tester successfully passed through the Senate a bipartisan fix that would allow VA to provide GI Bill benefits to students attending schools transitioning from on-site, in-person learning to distance learning due to public health emergencies.

As of March 17, 2020, VA is tracking 44 Veteran patients with either a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed or a locally, presumptively confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. There has been one confirmed death. Daily case counts are now available on VA’s website HERE. Guidelines individuals can follow to protect themselves and their communities from COVID-19, can be found on CDC’s website HERE.