Tester Leads Hearing on VA Priorities and Oversight of CARES Act During Public Health Crisis

Ranking Member Tester calls on VA Secretary Wilkie to expand testing capabilities and address employee vacancies to better address veteran needs during COVID-19 pandemic

(U.S. Senate) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, today led a committee hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal years. Tester also addressed unused supplemental funding meant for VA’s COVID-19 response efforts under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

At the hearing, Tester pressed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for more information on how CARES Act funding is being allocated and used by the Department towards coronavirus relief efforts. Tester also highlighted the critical need to ensure the President’s budget request for VA’s in-house care meets the anticipated health care demand of veterans—both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

“This budget was developed long before we knew there was going to be a 2020 pandemic and quite frankly, it’s a boatload of money—but it needs to be ‘right-sized,’” said Ranking Member Tester. “The question is: does this budget account for that since it was laid out long before we had a COVID-19 pandemic on our hands? How do you account for it?”

Secretary Wilkie responded, “When I first started talking to you and to the Chairman, we were predicting hundreds of thousands of veterans being infected with this virus. We have mercifully been spared those numbers… That means of the $17.2 billion that the appropriators allocated to us for the CARES Act, we’ve spent $1.01 billion on medical services. Right now we have more than enough to anticipate the problems that you have just outlined.”

Tester also questioned Wilkie regarding recent reports that VA health care employees have insufficient access to testing at facilities across the country: “The issue around testing is really important and you’ve said that any employee that wants tests can get tests. We’re not hearing that from the folks on the ground. We’re still hearing that they’re not being tested. Can you shed some light on that as to what the heck’s going on?”

“You’re exactly right, we’re not there yet,” replied Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration Dr. Richard Stone. “Right now, we have about 60,000 tests available—but we do not have the ability to institute on-demand testing for our employees, but it is our intent to get there.”

As the largest health care system in the nation, Tester questioned the Department’s plans to address employee vacancies, as well as the future roll-out of the new electronic health record system, which was delayed due to the ongoing national health crisis.

As Ranking Member, Tester has fought tirelessly to ensure that veterans and the staff who provide their care have better access to life-saving supplies during the pandemic. After voting to deliver nearly $20 billion to strengthen the VA’s response to COVID-19, Tester called on VA Secretary Wilkie to implement key provisions under the CARES Act to provide critical supplies, personal protective equipment, and testing capabilities with veterans and employees.

A copy of Tester’s opening statement as prepared for delivery can be found HERE.