VA is starting to execute its fourth mission of supporting the national COVID-19 response, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said March 30 during a radio interview.
The department recently announced it opened 50 beds to non-Veteran, COVID and non-COVID patients to help New York City.
The decision came after the state of New York requested federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Wilkie said VA also received a request for assistance from New Jersey.
Wilkie said as governors make requests for assistance, VA stands ready to respond.
The secretary said VA is also helping on the national level. VA received an order from FEMA to take over the pharmaceutical purchase and supply system. VA will be the “central supply station” of medicine and oxygen during the COVID-19 response for FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard.
Veterans still first
The secretary said while the fourth mission is important, Veteran care is still VA’s first mission.
“Veterans come first,” Wilkie said. “It’s only when we have that excess capacity would we open up our facilities for people outside of VA.”
The secretary said the COVID-19 pandemic forced VA to make painful decisions affecting Veterans.
“The most difficult decision we had to make was shutting down our assisted living centers,” he said. VA had to shut down the facilities to visitors and families due to COVID-19 concerns about the elderly patients.
“The majority of the 7,800 Veterans who are in those homes are from World War II and Korea,” Wilkie said. “It is a very painful thing to tell those warriors who had seen so much, both in the Pacific and Europe and also the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, that at this time in their lives, they could not see their families.”
The secretary also said that VA is looking at options for community care. He said in some places, local medical care is shutting down and not seeing Veterans.
“We have not stopped or paused Choice,” Wilkie said. For routine items like wellness visits, he said VA is looking at telehealth options to continue providing care for Veterans.
Wilkie said he had one overarching message for Veterans.
“If you don’t feel well, tell us,” he said. “Don’t come in. We don’t want to put you in jeopardy or put our workers in jeopardy.” He said Veterans should call first.
The Secretary also said during the crisis, Veterans, families and Caregivers should use VA’s website and the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
For more information
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
For the latest VA updates on coronavirus and commonsense tips on preventing its spread, visit https://www.va.gov/coronavirus.
For more information about coronavirus, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
Listen to the full audio at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekmTToQHaco.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect patients served at the New York Harbor Healthcare System.