House Overwhelmingly Backs Expanding Who VA Vaccinates

Lawmakers look to further leverage the Veterans Affairs Department's successful vaccine rollout.

The House on Tuesday evening unanimously passed a measure that would broaden the Veterans Affairs Department’s responsibilities in vaccinating Americans, adding to the millions of individuals it is already tasked with inoculating. 

The 2021 VA Veterans’ and Caregivers’ COVID-19 Immunizations Now Expanded (VA VACCINE) Act (H.R. 1276) would allow any veteran to receive a novel coronavirus vaccine through the department, even if they are not enrolled in VA health care. It would also enable any caregiver of veterans enrolled in several VA long-term care programs to receive an inoculation from the department. 

The measure, which now heads to the Senate after receiving broad, bipartisan backing in the House, would ensure that veterans not eligible for care through the VA system could receive the vaccine. That includes veterans without compensable service-connected disabilities, those with incomes above VA’s threshold and those living abroad. Veteran service organizations requested legislation and lawmakers moved quickly to usher it through the House. 

“The House took swift action to ensure VA can provide COVID-19 vaccines to all veterans and caregivers who walk through its doors,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We must get more shots in arms—our VA VACCINE Act makes sure that VA can.”

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the top Republican on the committee, said it was "painful" to hear stories of veterans being turned away from receiving the vaccine at their local VA facility. He called the measure a "lifeline" that would give VA the "authority it needs to meet this moment." 

VA has so far provided an initial dose of a vaccine to nearly 1.9 million people. It is now vaccinating about 300,000 people per week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allocated 6.5 million doses to VA, a figure that will have to be increased to reach the newly eligible population. Richard Stone, VA’s acting undersecretary for health, recently told Congress the department did not have enough vaccine supply to inoculate veterans ineligible for its care. 

VA is currently assisting the Homeland Security Department in vaccinating its employees, so far delivering first doses to about 15,000 of those staffers. The joint initiative has been slow to get off the ground and has left those located outside a 50-mile radius from designated facilities on their own to receive a shot. Then-acting Homeland Security Secretary David Pekoske emailed staff in January to launch Operation Vaccinate Our Workers (VOW), saying the department would eventually help get all employees who want a COVID-19 vaccine get one. VA has said it will maintain its partnership with DHS until vaccines are widely available, but the two agencies have not yet opened up the appointments to all Homeland Security personnel. Randy Noller, a VA spokesman, said the department will be expanding the number of facilities accepting DHS personnel from 31 to 71 in the coming weeks.

VA has so far provided at least an initial dose of the vaccine to 275,000 of its own employees, more than two-thirds of its workforce. The department has similarly promised to eventually make the vaccine available to any employee who wants it. VA, which runs the largest hospital network in the country, has delivered more vaccine doses than all other agencies receiving direct distributions combined.