Lawmakers call for accountability after COVID-19 deaths at state veterans' homes

Abbie Bennett
July 29, 2020 - 12:13 pm
An American flag flies at half-mast outside the Holyoke Soldiers' Home on April 29, 2020 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In one of the deadliest known COVID-19 outbreaks at a long-term care center in the U.S.

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

At least 76 veterans have died and dozens have fallen ill at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts -- a third of all residents there. Holyoke is the site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks for veterans in the country. Now, after what appeared to be weeks with no new cases, the home confirmed a “renewed” case of the virus in a veteran who had previously appeared to recover. 

The home is limiting visitors again, according to an email sent to family members and residents of the home, reviewed by Connecting Vets. The email was sent by the home’s new leadership, interim Superintendent Val Liptak, head of a state team sent to handle the crisis at the home in March, including National Guard troops. The previous superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was removed last month.

During a House Veterans Affairs subpanel hearing Wednesday, lawmakers wanted to know who was responsible for the failings that led to the deaths and rapid spread of the virus among residents and staff at homes like Holyoke across the country. At a New Jersey home, 82 veterans died. At a Pennsylvania home, 42. Lawmakers called for accountability and change to prevent such tragedies from happening again. But they received few answers or solutions during the hearing.

It’s difficult to tell how many veterans have died at the state homes. Not all are required to report virus cases or deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Veterans eligible for VA-funded assisted living care are split up among several types of facilities. Some receive care at 157 state veterans’ homes. Others, at VA-managed community living centers (CLCs). Still others receive care at private facilities paid for by VA.

VA provides federal grants to the veterans' homes, but they are owned and managed by the states under federal law. VA officials told lawmakers VA “does not have authority over the management or control of a (state veterans’ home).” 

VA is responsible for ensuring the homes meet department standards through annual surveys, audits, inspections and other checks. In some cases, VA is the only agency inspecting the facilities.

But a sharp disparity emerged over the course of the pandemic so far. In a recent interview, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said just two of the about 7,500 veterans in CLCs nationwide were battling the virus. 

Congress approved $5 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding for state homes nationwide in the Cares Act passed earlier in the pandemic, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., said. 

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said CLCs were better staffed, had better access to testing and personal protective equipment compared to state veterans’ homes.

“There should not be two standards for care for veterans residing in CLCs and state veterans’ homes,” Brownley said, adding that she wanted to know the actions VA had taken to help

“It’s ultimately the states, not the VA who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of these facilities,” said Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla. “The VA undoubtedly has a special relationship with these facilities … Now is a good time for us to … reevaluate that relationship.”

Brownley said VA could formalize a plan for pandemic response, or in its Fourth Mission, to assist state veterans' homes to prevent future tragedies.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he wondered if better VA oversight of the state homes could have mitigated the damage done by the pandemic there, describing systemic issues at some homes such as staffing issues and lack of resources.

The Government Accountability Office provided VA multiple recommendations to VA previously on oversight for the state homes. 

“I have to wonder how many lives could’ve been saved … if there had been stronger, more consistent oversight on the part of VA,” he said. 

VA officials said the department provided support for the state homes during the pandemic, including personal protective equipment such as masks, training, deploying 430 staff to support the homes and admitting more than 500 residents of the home into VA for care.

Testing and vaccines

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Penn., quizzed VA on its testing capabilities, including how it could help at the state-run veterans' homes.

VA officials provided few, if any, answers, repeating a trend throughout the hearing of telling lawmakers they would provide answers to their offices later.

When asked why, after five months of the pandemic, and nearly $20 billion in COVID-19 emergency funding from Congress, VA still cannot provide testing to all veterans or staff who want or need it, VA officials said the answer was complicated and they would get back to lawmakers about it, offering no public answer.

State veterans' home representatives said there is currently not point-of-contact testing at the homes, which can help determine if staff are infected before they come into the facility, preventing further spread.

VA officials told lawmakers VA does not have the resources to test in the veterans' homes and is not providing daily testing for its own employees.

"It's a large healthcare system," said Teresa Boyd, Assistant Undersecretary for Health for Clinical Services at the Veterans Health Administration. "We do routine testing of high-risk areas."

When Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., asked VA officials for "a commitment" to not administer a COVID-19 vaccine to veterans until it is fully approved by the FDA, Boyd said she would take the comment back to VA researchers, but would not publicly commit to holding off until the vaccine gets full FDA approval.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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