State Veterans Homes and the COVID-19 Pandemic Report
Linda Schwartz,a MUSNAVC member, a former assistant secretary of the VA assembled a panel to investigate what had gone wrong as coronavirus killed residents of veterans homes in multiple states. What they found was startling: a lack of transparency and a VA leadership team that shirked responsibility for the facilities. Read article and see full report, with recommendations, below.
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES: August 12, 2020
WASHINGTON — When Linda Schwartz first heard about coronavirus outbreaks killing residents of veterans homes in multiple states, she wanted to dig more deeply.
Schwartz was the longtime commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. She served as an assistant secretary of the VA under former President Barack Obama, leading the VA’s policy and planning initiatives. She’s also a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 20 years, retiring in 1986 after she was injured in an aircraft accident.
When she watched the news this spring about veterans dying alone in nursing homes, Schwartz saw herself and her family.
“For many Vietnam War veterans, it was like we were back in Vietnam again and the same thing is happening — we’re being left behind,” Schwartz said.
Under the direction of Vietnam Veterans of America, she assembled a committee to investigate what had gone wrong. What they found was startling: a lack of transparency about the number of coronavirus deaths at veterans homes, and a VA leadership team that shirked responsibility for the facilities.
The committee assembled its findings and recommendations into a 16-page report that will be shared with members of Congress. The main takeaway, Schwartz said, was that the VA should be more involved with veterans homes to ensure they’re in good condition. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, better collaboration could’ve saved lives, she said.
“There is a sense that VA does not embrace the care of these veterans as being part of its mission,” the report states.
Death total unknown
The seven-person committee started its work by tallying the number of coronavirus deaths at the 162 state-run veterans homes nationwide. They found that 1,011 residents had died as of July 17.
However, that number includes deaths at only 47 homes in 34 states. After months of calling state departments of public health and scouring data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the committee couldn’t obtain infection and fatality statistics for 115 veterans homes.
The federal VA does not require the homes to inform them of coronavirus deaths. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said Monday that deaths at veterans homes aren’t included in the department’s coronavirus counts. “The more we looked, the more we didn’t see and the more we were suspicious,” Schwartz said. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t they doing this?’ When you don’t report, you have to ask what’s going on.”
The issue of accounting for deaths at veterans homes was brought up last month at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Not all veterans homes are required to report information about coronavirus infections and deaths to the VA or the CDC, Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said at the time. “Unfortunately, we do not know how many [deaths] have occurred at state veterans homes,” Brownley said. “The department lacks a clear picture.”
Schwartz said she believes her committee is the only entity to track deaths at the facilities comprehensively. According to their count, 33 veterans homes had seen 10 or more residents die of the virus. The most deaths occurred at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass., and the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home in New Jersey. Each facility reported more than 80 coronavirus-related deaths. The Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in Maryland, the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in New Jersey and the Long Island State Veterans Home in New York each reported more than 60 dead residents.