In Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing, Rep. Susie Lee Urges COVID-19 Safety Improvements, Mental Health Support for Veterans, VA Staff

February 19, 2021
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WASHINGTON – In her second hearing as member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, U.S. Rep. Susie Lee (Nev.-03) examined the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan includes $500 million for VA to implement protections to protect from infectious diseases like COVID-19. Rep. Lee asked Acting Undersecretary for Health at the Veterans Health Administration, Dr. Richard Stone, how those funds will be used to improve safety in veteran long-term health facilities:

Rep. Lee - “I had a chance to talk to our state Veterans Home Director. She said they’re in the process of moving their two-bedroom units and converting them to one bed to try to stop the spread of diseases like COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan proposes $500 million for VA to provide construction to state veteran’s homes. Can you talk about issues that state veteran’s homes have had and ways that this $500 million can help them update their infrastructure?

Dr. Stone - “The creation of negative pressure rooms is absolutely essential, even in this environment. The creation of neighborhoods, which is quite a bit different than many of those structures are built. The creation of neighborhoods that don’t force employees to cross over between areas. That will reduce the chances of an employee from carrying the disease from one area to another.

“As part of the CARES Act, there were some funds set aside. We have 28 proposals for construction from state veteran’s homes that we will be awarding. We look forward to the American Rescue Plan supplementing that to move these to a model for the rest of American long-term health care.”

Rep. Lee stressed the importance of supporting the mental health of not only veterans, but VA staff whose jobs have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Lee - “I had the chance to talk to our officials at the VA in southern Nevada. We talked about the toll, especially now that it’s been almost a year, that COVID-19 deaths are having on staff and the resources that the VA health systems were providing. I worry about mental health issues with our staff members.”

Dr. Stone - “This has been tough. I’ll tell you even in the central office, this has been some of the toughest work I’ve ever done, including combat. Our employee support services, our national center for organizational development, even our vets centers have been engaged in bringing assets where we’ve had large numbers of employees. The effect on employees hasn’t been just disease. It’s been the changes in what’s happening to their families. It’s about moms struggling with caring for their children who aren’t in organized school all day. Everybody’s lives have been turned upside down.”

Rep. Lee has continued to fight for relief and resources for veterans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The most recent relief package proposal, the American Rescue Plan, includes an additional $17 billion for veterans’ programs to address health and employment challenges related to COVID-19.

In December 2020, Rep. Lee’s bill, the Leave No Veteran Behind Act, was signed into law as a provision of the COMPACT Act. The law requires that the VA contact veterans who have not had contact with VA in two or more years to encourage them to receive comprehensive exams so that they continue their eligibility for coverage of emergency care not related to service-connected disabilities.

In September 2020, Rep. Lee’s bill, the VA Telehealth Expansion Act, was signed into law as a provision of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, to improve and expand VA telehealth services for veterans.