When Vietnam veteran Donald Snyder heard his local Department of Veterans Affairs hospital was offering coronavirus vaccines to vets 65 and older, he immediately called to make an appointment. But Snyder, who does not get health care through the VA because he does not meet its eligibility criteria, was turned down.
He was miffed.
"I understand the income [limits] to be eligible for veterans health care benefits, but the vaccine? The vaccine is free to all Americans; we paid for it with our tax dollars. There's no reason a veteran shouldn't be able to get it at the VA," Snyder said.
In Congress, lawmakers have heard similar thoughts from veterans and those who care for ill and at-risk former service members -- those who are not enrolled in VA health care and not able to get the vaccine from the VA.
A few lawmakers are trying to do something about it.
"Getting vaccines into the arms of every person who wants one as soon as we can is key to finally getting us past this pandemic. In my mind, veterans should always be at the front of the line," said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a release Wednesday.
"Your goal should be to vaccinate every single [veteran] assuming they are not going to object to getting the vaccine," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told Dr. Richard Stone, acting under secretary for health during a hearing Wednesday.
Bost and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced legislation Wednesday that would allow the VA to vaccinate any veteran and some caregivers who requested a shot after all currently eligible veterans are offered one.
Currently, the department is working toward vaccinating 6 million regular users of VA health care. An additional 3.3 million veterans are enrolled in care and are inactive, and 9.2 million U.S. veterans do not have contact with the VA health system because they either haven't enrolled or are not eligible. Veterans must meet certain criteria to be eligible for care, including income thresholds and having a service-connected disability.
The VA is offering vaccines to caregivers enrolled in the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers and has vaccinated 2,000 so far, according to Stone.
Takano and Bost's bill would allow any veteran to get their vaccine through the VA, as well as caregivers providing assistance to veterans in any VA home-based or long-term care program.
It also would allow the VA to provide vaccines to veterans living overseas who get care through the department's Foreign Medical Program.
"Our bill provides a critical fix to allow VA to expand who is eligible to receive a vaccine at its facilities -- opening up access to all veterans and their caregivers," Takano said.
The VA has consistently maintained that it cannot, by law, offer the vaccine to veterans not enrolled in VA health care or civilian caregivers, but Stone said the department "doesn't want to turn anybody away."
"We need some additional authorities to get to the rest of that population," he said.
He added that the department is doing what it can within the law to reach more veterans, including enrolling eligible vets who show up to vaccine clinics in VA health care and reaching out to veterans to encourage them to enroll in care. He said the department has contacted 8 million in the last few weeks alone.
"I share your desire to get the vaccine into as many people as we can," Stone told lawmakers.
As of Thursday, the VA had received nearly 2.5 million doses of the vaccine and administered 2.04 million to employees and eligible veterans, including 676,163 second doses. More than 1.16 million veterans have received their first dose, and a half-million have gotten their second, according to VA data.
Stone said the VA is receiving roughly 125,000 vaccine doses a week but expects 600,000 next week.
With a new vaccine on the horizon, made by Johnson & Johnson, "We will continue to see increases," he said. "The problem we're having with the amount will resolve itself over these next number of weeks."
More than 226,000 patients in the VA health care have been diagnosed with COVID-19; 10,367 have died, including 131 employees.
Lawmakers pledged to work quickly to get more doses to the VA and give it the authorization to vaccinate veterans outside the VA system.
"VA should not have to turn away any veteran who walks through its doors to get a COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of whether they're enrolled in or eligible for other VA health care services," Takano said.