All veterans, their spouses and caregivers will be able to receive a coronavirus vaccine through the Department of Veterans Affairs once doses are made available, under legislation finalized by Congress on Friday.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days. Veterans Affairs leaders had supported the move, saying they did not want to turn away any veteran from receiving the shots if they were available.
But under current rules, department medical centers were permitted to administer vaccines only to veterans already eligible for VA health care services, and for certain caregivers registered in VA support programs. That totals just under 7 million individuals.
Under the new bill, that number is expected to jump to more than 20 million. It would make vaccines eligible “to all veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers, and Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) recipients to the extent that such vaccines are available.”
The measure also for the first time makes veterans living abroad and enrolled in VA’s the Foreign Medical Program eligible to receive the vaccine through department facilities.
The legislation passed without objection in both the House and Senate.
“We’re one step away from ensuring that every veteran, spouse, and caregiver in this country has access to a vaccine from VA,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. “This legislation is a critical step in reaching our common goal of saving more lives and getting our economy back on track as quickly and safely as possible.”
That one step, however, is still a formidable challenge. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged that his department’s ability to vaccinate the entire veteran population will depend on supplies provided by federal partners.
“All of us face a limited supply challenge,” he said. “When we have the supply to do it we will be in a position to really ramp that up.”
As part of the legislation, Congress will urge Department of Health and Human Services officials to increase VA’s vaccine allocation “as much as the supply chain allows.”
Department staff are currently administering about 250,000 vaccine doses a week. Acting VA Under Secretary for Health Richard Stone told Military Times earlier this month that he believes VA could do more than 300,000 if given enough supplies from federal partners.
As of Friday morning, VA medical staff had fully vaccinated more than 1.4 million individuals since mid-December. That includes about 1.1 million veterans and about 250,000 VA employees.
The legislation does not require veterans or their family members to get a vaccine through VA facilities, but allows them the option to receive it when doses are available. VA officials have said they will continue to prioritize elderly veterans and individuals with other existing health conditions that may make them more vulnerable to coronavirus complications.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.