As virus spreads, VA gets set to back up taxed US hospitals

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

President Donald Trump departs after a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington, with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Veterans Affairs is bracing for a potential surge of 1 million veterans infected by coronavirus and at the same time is preparing for the possibility it may have to absorb overflow civilian patients if private hospitals are overrun by the pandemic.

Based on a “worst case” scenario that up to 1 in 5 of its mostly elderly population of veterans will need coronavirus care, the government-run hospital system is seeking $16.6 billion in emergency money, according to a VA document submitted to Congress and obtained by The Associated Press.

The money would be used over six months to ramp up COVID-19 testing, cover hospital care and protective masks for 4,500 more veterans, add medical ventilators, boost online telehealth options as Americans continue to hunker at home and pay for 40,000 more urgent care visits. About $170.74 would be allocated per VA employee in certain divisions for hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and antiviral face tissue for the rest of the budget year that ends Sept. 30.

“All that gives is an added safety boost,” Dr. Richard Stone, the agency's top health official, said in an AP interview.

During national emergencies such as the one declared by President Donald Trump last week, the VA not only serves 9 million veterans but also acts as a backup health care system to the broader public.

If called upon by states and the Health and Human Services Department, the VA network of 170 hospitals, 1,074 outpatient sites and more than 350,000 employees could provide care to first responders and civilians in hard-hit communities.

It could be an unprecedented task for the VA, which has faced past criticism for staff shortages, management disarray and long patient wait times.

Since January, the department has run drills and checked stockpiles of medical equipment. As coronavirus spread in the U.S., the VA locked down visitation at its 134 nursing homes and 24 spinal cord injury centers to protect elderly and vulnerable patients and screened patients for symptoms of the virus before they entered facilities.