U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT) are currently seeking extra support for military veterans living in both VA-run long-term care facilities and privately run long-term care facilities and nursing homes receiving VA money, warning that military vets are an extremely vulnerable demographic during the COVID-19 epidemic as the flu season is getting closer.
In a letter addressed to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie late last month, the two senators urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure that both veterans and their caregivers in adult care settings have access to critical resources during the ongoing health crisis amid concerns that long-term care facilitates and nursing homes are currently some of the nation’s most vulnerable settings for outbreaks.
According to the Government Accountability Office’s estimates, over 105,000 veterans currently receive long-term care in VA facilities or VA-sponsored state-run residential settings and privately-run nursing homes every year. Military veterans are a particularly vulnerable group because of their old age and higher comorbidity prevalence, which puts them at risk of illness and early death as coronavirus cases continue to surge.
The letter continues with a series of recommendations to the department to offer additional help especially to vulnerable veterans receiving care in private and state-run settings paid for by the VA. The recommendations focus on:
- Wide-scale testing. The VA has reportedly not conducted wide-scale testing of long-term care facilities’ patients and staff members since April 2020. Weekly staff testing in VA-run centers and testing outreach and support in VA-sponsored settings are now both being requested.
- State Veterans Home Spot Checks. The two senators urge the VA to oversee the quality of veteran care in all the facilities currently receiving VA money through unannounced surveys targeting infection levels, COVID-19 testing, and constant monitoring of staffing levels (Understaffing is one of the most common causes of elderly abuse and neglect in nursing homes and residential facilities nationwide. In June 2020, 1 in 3 nursing homes was reportedly facing staffing shortages.)
- Nursing Home Support Teams. Sens Moran and Tester noted that the National Guard has already been deployed to understaffed facilities to offer support to staff members and residents in vulnerable nursing homes and residential settings and urged the VA to come up with its own “support teams” to offer infection control and training to staffers in those vulnerable settings. It is worth noting that, in 2019, Sen. Tester fought for pay raises for the National Guard and financial support for troops and their families in his home state.
- Nursing Home Concerns Hotline. The two congressmen want an “avenue” where veterans, staffers, or concerned family members can report potential outbreaks and other safety issues such as lack of testing and sketchy triage procedures directly to VA inspectors.
- Virtual Visitations. Veterans’ family members and friends are urged to use virtual visitation opportunities offered by the VA when trying to keep in touch with their loved ones living in VA care facilities. The VA is now required to “explore methods” to offer the necessary technical equipment to make these virtual visitations a widespread practice across all VA facilities. In March, the VA banned all in-person visitations of nursing home residents in order to limit virus exposure but allowed veterans to have at least one video chat session with their loved ones every week. Currently, in-person visitations are allowed in some states under severe restrictions, and many veterans’ families are concerned that the quality of care may drop dramatically leaving room to abuse and neglect if they are no longer allowed to keep in touch with their elderly. Many people are even considering consulting with a nursing home abuse attorney to see what their options may be in the current situation.
U.S. Senators Tester and Moran, on the other hand, are adamant about the breadth and scope of their push to keep veterans safe during these challenging times and asked for a follow-up session with the VA within 60 days of receipt of their letter (You can read the full letter here.) Their concerns were spurred by a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-July, showing an 18 to 50% uptick in coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities nationwide.