“America will again, and soon, be open for business,” President Trump had said. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” That was on March 23, the same day that the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot published a letter from Sheila Elliott, a long-time pharmacist at the nearby Hampton Veterans Affairs hospital, criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs for “the haphazard way in which COVID-19 is being handled.” The VA, she wrote, “was at the front lines of providing invaluable assistance” to victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola epidemic, but “this time, VA workers are facing a scarcity of everything from masks to hand sanitizer to test kits.”
As the coronavirus pandemic rips through America, the VA is preparing to fulfill its statutory role as a backup civilian healthcare system when the private sector becomes overloaded. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie announced last week that the department would open up 1,500 hospital beds across the country for civilians diagnosed with Covid-19. But as the VA ramps up this critical support, its clinicians must also continue treating more than nine million veterans, many of whom are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus due to their age and underlying conditions, including respiratory illnesses brought on by exposure to Agent Orange or burn pits.
There’s reason to be hopeful that the VA can meet these challenges. Contrary to popular belief, the department generally delivers care that’s as good or better than the private sector’s. As for-private hospitals continue to schedule lucrative tummy tucks and other non-essential services, the VA has swiftly canceled elective procedures in order to free up staff and resources for emergency care. While the private sector system is furloughing staff, the VA is expediting hiring practices and ramping up compensation. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had to strong-arm private hospitals to coordinate on care and equipment, but the VA has long run a highly integrated national network where staff and supplies can be shifted quickly to help quell the virus.
But the VA’s many strengths are being undercut by the Trump administration’s attacks on federal workers’ rights. Elliott—who, in addition to having worked at the VA for 30 years, is the daughter of a World War II Navy veteran and president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2328—told me that VA leaders were ignoring labor leaders’ concerns and recommendations for workplace safety. As a result, decisions were being made seemingly arbitrarily, some staff assigned to Elliott’s hospital’s Covid-19 unit were not properly trained, and safety protections had not been ensured.