VA Says It's Getting More Masks For Staff; Workers Say They're Still Unsafe

May 2, 2020

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the nation's largest health care system that takes care of 9 1/2 million vets at 170 hospitals. Like other hospitals, it's been forced to ration personal protective equipment during the pandemic, even though it's supposed to be part of the nation's emergency response to disasters or pandemics. Quil Lawrence covers veterans affairs for NPR, and he joins us now.

Quil, thanks so much for being with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You've reported on the VA's changing message about its supplies, haven't you?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I mean, from early on in March, we were getting dire warnings from frontline VA staff that they didn't feel like they were prepared. They didn't have all of the protective gear that they needed. Now, in March, the secretary of the VA, Robert Wilkie, told NPR that he was in a very good place for PPE, personal protective equipment. Then by mid-April, when he spoke to us again, he said the VA was essentially in the same situation as the rest of the country. That is that they were short.

ROBERT WILKIE: Again, we are in a position where we are competing now at the national level with the states and localities for those resources. And as a leader of any large organization, we've had to make contingency plans. But we are following the CDC guidelines.

SIMON: Quil, what does it mean that the VA has to compete? Among other things, isn't Secretary Wilkie on the president's Coronavirus Task Force?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, it's a puzzling statement to hear the federal government say that it's competing with itself. But later in that week, Dr. Richard Stone, who heads the Veterans Health Administration, said that he had had a shipment of 5 million masks secured, which he said was diverted by FEMA. And FEMA then denied that in a few tweets. And, I mean, these are two federal agencies that are supposed to be the tip of the spear of fighting this pandemic. By the weekend, they had put out a joint press release saying no, no one is stealing masks. And then on Tuesday, FEMA announced that it is sending about 5 million masks to the VA.

SIMON: So does the VA have enough now?

LAWRENCE: It's kind of back to the same confusion and contradiction. The VA spokespeople are telling me the same thing they did before - that they have enough to meet the CDC guidelines. VA workers are still saying that they feel unsafe. There was a virtual meeting with the VA - with VA union representatives and some Democratic lawmakers this week. We can listen to one of them. This is Pam Brown from the VA union in Cincinnati.

PAM BROWN: We feel that the VA is more concerned with press coverage than the safety of our workers. The VA is still rationing masks - one per week, even the screeners who come into contact with dozens of people daily.

LAWRENCE: So other complaints that they're short-staffed, that people are being asked to return to work too soon after they've been exposed or sick. The VA says it has gone on a hiring spree and is actually hiring up a lot of unemployed nurses and other health staff. So it's a lot more contradictions.

SIMON: And it gets down to this question - how is the VA performing during this crisis?

LAWRENCE: I'm trying to figure out how really to answer that. I mean, first, I would pause to say that VA frontline staff are showing up to work every day working on the frontlines of this pandemic and being rightly applauded at the end of their shifts. But in terms of how well the VA is serving veterans, there's really no apples-to-apples comparison to compare the VA to any other health care system in this country. The VA has a slightly higher rate of patients dying when they do contract COVID-19, but that's not surprising because the VA's patient population is a little bit sicker and a little bit older, as well as the rest of the country.

SIMON: NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans, thanks very much for being with us.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.