All veterans, their spouses and caregivers are now eligible to receive coronavirus vaccines through the Department of Veterans Affairs under a measure signed into law by President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
VA officials said after the signing that they will start running pilot programs in coming weeks at some medical centers to work through distribution of the vaccine to the wider veterans community, in anticipation of getting millions of additional doses in coming months.
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the changes will increase the number of individuals eligible for vaccines through VA from about 9 million to more than 33 million.
“Meeting the task of vaccinating this expanded population will be a tremendous undertaking for the VA and will require a significant increase in our allocation of vaccine supply, but I am confident that VA’s workforce is up to the task,” he said.
Under previous 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.
But the new legislation, which passed Congress without objection, dramatically expands that pool. It includes:
— All veterans living in the United States;
— Veterans living overseas enrolled in the Foreign Medical Program;
— Those veterans’ spouses;
— Veteran caregivers enrolled in either the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers or the Program of General Caregiver Support Services;
— Veteran caregivers enrolled in certain geriatrics and extended Care Programs, such as Veteran Directed Care and VA’s Medical Foster Home Program;
— and Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) recipients.
Nearly 240,000 VA patients have tested positive for coronavirus in the last year. At least 11,100 have died, along with 135 VA employees.
VA officials have fully vaccinated more than 1.5 million individuals since mid-December. The department currently receives about 200,000 doses a week, but officials said that number will have to triple to meet the entire new group of eligible individuals.
Federal partners have boosted VA’s vaccine allotment in recent weeks, but officials have not said how rapidly they can increase that total for the VA system.
The pilot programs for the expanded vaccine population will take place in March and April to “work through critical steps in the process including communications, operations including space and staffing, systems for registration, enrollment, and scheduling, documentation, and data transmission.”
Advocates and lawmakers hailed the moves as a key step forward in not only protecting veterans but also in getting more Americans vaccinated against the still-deadly virus.
“COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on all American, including veterans and their families,” said Pat Murray, National Legislative Director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The end may be near, but we will not come out of this until everybody possible has vaccinations.
“Expanding VA’s authority to vaccinate all veterans, caregivers, and spouses will help get us to herd immunity and hopefully eliminate this deadly disease.”
VA officials said additional information on signing up for a vaccine will be made available through the department’s web site.
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.