June 11, 2020

Chairman Takano: “The pandemic has exposed some alarming vulnerabilities and gaps in VA’s pandemic readiness.”

Press Contact

Jenni Geurink (202-819-4684)

Miguel R. Salazar

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered openingremarks before the first full committee hybrid hearing since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Congress to go virtual entitled, “Assessing VA’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: 90 Days Later.” Despite this crisis, the Committee has never stopped working for America’s veterans—since the pandemic began, the Committee has passed six bills, sent nine letters, and held four virtual forums including Congress’ first ever live, public, and entirely virtual bipartisan forum. A link to the video Chairman Takano’s opening statement and remarks as prepared can be found below.

 

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Full video of the Chairman’s remarks

 

Chairman Takano’s remarks as prepared:  

 

Thank you, Dr. Stone, to you and your team for being with us today to discuss the Department’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

The last time we were together in this room was February 27th, when you joined Secretary Wilkie and others in discussing the Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2021. As you probably recall, we also spent some time discussing VA’s preparedness to respond to COVID-19. At the time, there were fewer than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and no positive veterans under VHA care. 

 

During that hearing, I asked whether VA needed supplemental appropriations to prepare for a major coronavirus outbreak, but Secretary Wilkie quickly said, “not at this point, Mr. Chairman.” He went on to discuss how VA’s past responses to natural disasters made it well-prepared for a public health emergency. 

 

I think if Secretary Wilkie were here today, we could probably agree it was precipitous. Sadly, he is not here, despite our invitation and attempts to accommodate him virtually. 

 

I remember you were a bit more cautious, Dr. Stone, saying that if COVID-19 turned into a pandemic and portions of the U.S. health care system broke down, VA may need to come back and ask for additional funds. Since then, Congress has appropriated approximately $17.2 billion for VHA’s COVID-19 pandemic response, and I was glad to help advocate for that funding.

 

I’m not sure that many of us on the dais knew exactly what to expect during that February hearing, nor did we fully grasp the enormity of the public health and economic challenges that the American people would soon face from the pandemic. I think this is largely because the Administration failed to recognize these risks and communicate them to the American public in advance of the crisis.    

 

Here we are, a little more than 3 months later—and exactly 90 days after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency. Now, we have almost 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, more than 16,000 of which are among veterans who use VHA. Sadly, more than 1,400 veterans and 33 VA employees have now lost their lives to this disease.

 

Fortunately, VA quickly took several key actions in the first months of the pandemic to help keep veterans and VA employees safe. We may never know how many veterans’ lives were saved by actions VA took early in the pandemic.

 

On March 10th, VA instituted a “no visitors” policy at its community living centers—or VA-operated nursing homes—and spinal cord injury units. 

 

By March 13th, all VHA medical facilities had established screening processes at their entrances, to assess potential exposure to COVID-19 for each veteran, employee, and visitor entering the facility.

 

On March 18th, VHA suspended all non-urgent elective procedures. This freed up staff, supplies, equipment, and other resources to care for the expected influx of veterans with COVID-19, and helped control the spread of the virus. VA clinicians increased their delivery of care through telehealth by 1,000% as they replaced cancelled appointments with telephone calls and video visits as often as possible. 

 

I have been really encouraged by the fact VA has been able to use emergency expedited hiring authorities to rapidly hire new staff. VA onboarded more than 16,000 new employees in the most recent 2-month period. The pandemic has made clear just how vital our VA housekeeping and custodial staff are to infection control—we need to make sure we pay them fairly and treat them as the essential employees they are. 

 

To be clear, a lot of things have “gone right” with VA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for that VA is to be commended. This is also a testament to the wisdom of basing policy decisions on science, and engaging health care experts.  As a health care organization, VHA should be positioned to lead during a national public health crisis.

 

Tens of thousands of dedicated front-line VA employees have worked tirelessly and heroically over the last 3 months to care for veterans and non-veterans alike—and I want to thank them for their tremendous service to our nation. To date, VA has provided humanitarian “Fourth Mission” assistance through more than 60 formal and informal engagements in 46 states and the District of Columbia. 

 

However, the pandemic has also exposed some alarming vulnerabilities and gaps in VA’s pandemic readiness, especially in the area of medical supply chain, and inventory management. 

 

I have also been concerned about the extent to which VA has been fully and equitably implementing telework and paid leave for its employees throughout the pandemic. VA officials have told us they have observed lower rates of absenteeism and requests for leave during the pandemic than they did during the same period last year. It’s clear that VA employees have acted in good faith by showing up to work. They deserve greater flexibility from their employer as they attempt to keep themselves and their families healthy while continuing to carry out VA’s mission.  

 

A few weeks ago, VA announced its 3-phase plan for gradually resuming face-to-face care, and 20 VA medical centers began this process the week of May 18th. The Committee is watching closely as VA moves forward with this plan, to ensure that this is done in a way that keeps veterans and employees safe. 

 

Finally, before I close, I want to say that the Committee originally planned to conduct a fully remote hearing today—in accordance with House Resolution 965. 

 

The resolution we adopted on May 15th authorizes House committees to hold virtual hearings during the period of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This is so that we can continue to do the people’s business while maintaining the social distancing and safety precautions that health care experts recommend. Yet, here we are in the committee hearing room, and my colleagues and the public may be wondering why.  

  

Just a couple of days ago, VA informed the Committee that its witnesses would only participate in this hearing if I and at least one member of the minority would gather in the hearing room to listen to VA’s testimony in person. It’s my understanding that this reflects a directive from the White House. I’m concerned that this decision has needlessly put staff, Members, and witnesses at risk.

 

We have the tools to undertake our constitutional obligation to conduct oversight. In 2020, the technology exists to engage with VA, just as VA has engaged with tens of thousands of veterans via telehealth. 

Right now, VHA hasn’t even reinstated critical in-person compensation & pension exams, which has contributed to a growing backlog of more than 125,000 pending disability claims. VA’s attempt to inhibit congressional oversight by demanding that we sit in this room rather than conduct this hearing virtually, while VA continues to tell veterans they must stay home and continue waiting for the benefits they have earned perplexes me.

 

VA’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Committee’s original plan for holding a fully remote hearing is also strange because the Department generally has positive things to tell us today. This is good news because we appropriated more than $17.2 billion to try and get this pandemic response right.

 

I reluctantly agreed to conduct today’s hearing in a hybrid format, because I did not want negotiations with the Administration to delay it. However, I would like to remind the Administration that Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government, and it is the obligation of the Administration to be accountable to Congress. Playing games and threatening to withhold witnesses unless we submit to your terms is disrespectful. This pandemic is long from over, and we must remain humble in the face of the danger it poses. 

 

For more information about the Committee’s efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis and resources available for veterans, please visit: https://veterans.house.gov/covid-19.

 

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