TRUMP, on the administration’s health care efforts during the coronavirus outbreak: “We also acted swiftly to secure our veterans’ health care facilities. ... And we’re being helped very greatly by the passage of all the things that we got passed, Robert, especially Choice, so that people can go and see their doctor when they have to.” —remarks Thursday, with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie in attendance.
THE FACTS: Trump is wrong on two fronts. He didn’t pass the Veterans Choice program, and that program has had little impact during the virus outbreak. In fact, since March, the VA suspended the program's key provisions that granted veterans the option to see private doctors if they endured long waits for care at the government-run VA.
Congress first approved the program in 2014, and President Barack Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.
The program allows vets to see a private doctor for primary or mental health care if their VA wait is 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes or more.
But since the program's expansion in June 2018, the VA has not seen a major increase in veterans seeking care outside the VA, partly because wait times in the private sector are typically longer than at the VA.
The VA also took steps in late March to restrict veterans’ access to private care, citing the added risks of coronavirus exposure and limited capacity at private hospitals.
Under the temporary restrictions, the VA is reviewing referrals for nonemergency care “on a case-by-case basis for immediate clinical need and with regard to the safety of the veteran when being seen in-person, regardless of wait time or drive time eligibility,” said VA spokeswoman Christina Noel. She said the VA is expanding use of telehealth to address many of veterans' routine medical needs.
Republican lawmakers and conservatives such as Fox News host Pete Hegseth, a close ally of Trump’s who was considered for the VA secretary job in 2018, have argued that the expanded Choice program has been rendered ineffective during the coronavirus outbreak — not excelled as a model of care.
“This is a time when the VA should do everything possible to expand health care choices for veterans, not arbitrarily restrict them,” said Nate Anderson, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.
WILKIE, when asked how many VA employees have been tested for the coronavirus: “Well, we’ve tested well over 60,000.” — MSNBC interview on April 22.
THE FACTS: He overstated it by double. The VA actually has tested 32,155 out of 390,000 total employees, according to department figures provided Friday to Congress.
Wilkie was responding to concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment at VA medical centers, such as masks and gloves. He argued that VA staff is doing fine because of low infection rates, but VA nurses who spoke last month to The Associated Press said it’s been difficult to get a test from the department to know if they have the virus.
According to the VA, employees who have been exposed to patients with COVID-19 and show symptoms may be tested “at a VA medical center, local health departments, or community resources, depending on what resources for testing are available.” The department said Friday that all employees at its nursing homes had now been tested, and it would expand testing to other “vulnerable” employees this week.
To date, about 2,000 staff at VA facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, and an additional 3,500 have been quarantined and are unable to work out of concerns they are infected, according to agency documents. About 20 staff have died.
The VA has pointed in part to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not supplying it with enough medical supplies. In its update Friday to Congress, the VA said it did not have enough tests for every staff member who wanted one, but it remained a goal for the department.
More than a dozen Democrats led by Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, have called on Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure that VA employees get an adequate supply of protective equipment.