Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ mission is to care for those “who have borne the battle.” As we face an unprecedented public health crisis, the VA’s ability to fulfill that mission will be tested.
Responsible for the largest integrated health care system in the United States, the VA is already on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus — it will be critical that VA hospitals remain staffed and supplied to respond to this growing pandemic. However, the VA must also take quick and decisive action to adequately protect veterans’ access to the other critical benefits and services that it provides. Secretary Robert Wilkie’s incremental and piecemeal response so far is simply not enough; he must take immediate steps to stem the damage from COVID-19 and its economic fallout.
The coronavirus pandemic will hit veterans and their families especially hard. More than half of veterans nationwide are aged 65 or older, and a significant percentage of all veterans suffer from underlying health conditions. Early reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that patients 65 or older have represented 31% of COVID-19 cases, 45% of hospitalizations, 53% of ICU admissions, and 80% of deaths. And the CDC has warned that individuals with underlying health conditions such as chronic respiratory diseases, chronic liver diseases, and diabetes are more susceptible to infection. All of these underlying conditions are more prevalent in the veteran population, and as attorneys in the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Veterans Practice, we see how frequently these health conditions are a direct result of military service.
The CDC has recommended that individuals stay away from those who are sick, avoid crowds, and stay at home as much as possible, and by the end of this week more than half of Americans will be subject to a stay-at-home executive order. Yet the VA has not taken essential steps to ensure that veterans can, in fact, stay home without risking their benefits.
Currently, the VA is still asking veterans seeking disability benefits to attend medically unnecessary in-person benefits exams. These take place at already overwhelmed VA medical centers, where the virus is more likely to be present, or at independent contractors, where the VA has no ability to monitor the health of the veteran or other clinic patients. The VA must immediately convert all of these examinations to telehealth or phone exams, and postpone any that absolutely require an in-person exam. The VA should continue to develop claims to the extent possible, and award benefits as quickly as possible to those veterans who do not require examinations, as these benefits will be a lifeline for many veterans who have lost paychecks or jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Similarly, the VA must adopt a uniform policy that recognizes the impact that this national emergency has on veterans’ ability to pursue their claims. Currently, deadlines for claim and evidence submissions and appeals continue to run, leaving veterans scrambling to collect, print, and submit paperwork and evidence. The VA must extend these deadlines whenever possible, as for many veterans the only way to submit is to travel by public transportation and utilize supply stores, libraries, post offices, or VA facilities. The accompanying risk of exposure is unacceptable; veterans should not be forced to choose between their health and their claims.
Unfortunately, the veterans service organizations and accredited attorneys that veterans often rely on to navigate the VA will simply not be enough to overcome the challenges. Advocates will struggle to provide meaningful representation as they adapt to new restrictions on travel and in-office work. Simple tasks like checking and sending mail will become considerably more difficult — meaning claimants and advocates may not receive mailed notice of deadlines — while developing medical evidence will become nearly impossible as doctors’ offices refuse non-essential appointments and records offices close. An across-the-board suspension of claim and appeal deadlines for all claimants is the only equitable and safe solution at this time.
Beyond excusing veterans from making these unnecessary trips for their different benefit claims, the VA must also do more to prevent veterans and their families from taking unwarranted exposure risks, and to protect their health and wellbeing for the long-term. Income and housing stability are key components of health. Because the VA provides monetary and housing benefits to many veterans, it has considerable power to ensure that veterans and their families are housed and have a steady source of income during this national emergency.
The VA should start by urgently expediting all claims and other requests involving financial hardship. It should strive for expedited processing not only in cases already flagged for financial hardship, but in all claims for entry into income-based programs like VA pension, and claims for housing assistance, whether that be by bringing more veterans into the HUD-VASH housing voucher program, or ensuring that Basic Allowance for Housing support for student veterans continues, as new legislation passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires.
The VA must also immediately halt all debt collection activities and decline to start new collections processes through the end of the national emergency. The VA’s current position that veterans who owe money can “request assistance” if they are affected by COVID-19 is insufficient. This is not the time for case-by-case relief that places the burden on sick claimants or veterans reeling from pandemic-related job loss to prove hardship. Collections can wait. Right now, veterans, and our economy, need every cent to pay rent and bills, and buy necessities.
Finally, in this time of crisis and as our nation’s civilian medical system is rapidly becoming overwhelmed, VA medical centers must not turn away anyone who has served in the military and who presents with severe symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Effective immediately, the VA must provide free COVID-19 treatment for all veterans, regardless of discharge status — it must serve all “who have borne the battle.”
The New York Legal Assistance Group and a national coalition of other veteran and military advocates have urged the VA secretary to take these steps and any other action in his power to protect veterans and their families’ health and wellbeing. Uncertainty and inaction will only further compound the consequences of this pandemic, and that is not acceptable to our nation’s veterans and their families.