A group of U.S. military veterans in the Philippines say they've been left in limbo by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will only offer the coronavirus vaccine there to its staff and veterans receiving treatment at its clinic in Manila.
Representatives of veteran and retiree organizations in the Philippines wrote to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on behalf of 30,000 veterans living in the Philippines, outlining their concerns about the U.S. government's vaccination plan.
The Philippines has reported nearly 470,000 coronavirus cases with over 9,000 deaths, Nikkei Asia reported Sunday.
"It is our understanding that this vaccine will be given to all citizens of the United States free of charge," wrote a group of former service members and members of Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and a veteran support organization in the Philippines.
The signers include Michael Applegate, who signed as a member of the VFW Pacific Areas Department and American Legion Post 123 in Angeles City, Mark Favreau, who signed as the director of the U.S. military Retiree Support Services Office in Manila and George Cox, who signed as a member of VFW Post 2485 in Angeles City.
But the VA Manila Regional Benefit Office and Out-Patient Clinic has informed veterans that, by law, it can only administer the coronavirus vaccine to service-connected, disability-rated veterans who are enrolled there as patients. Local VA health care employees will also get the shot, the veterans' letter states.
"This in and of itself is a travesty and a slap in the face to the over thirty-thousand U.S. Military Veterans/Retirees residing here!" the veterans wrote. "To add insult to injury, the VA Manila Out-Patient Clinic has NO PLANS to distribute and administer the COVID-19 vaccine to the remaining U.S. Military Veteran/Retiree population AT ALL!"
The U.S. Embassy in Manila states on its website that the U.S. government does not plan to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to U.S. citizens overseas. COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
"We encourage U.S. citizens resident in the Philippines to follow host-country developments and guidelines for COVID-19 vaccinations," the website states.
The VA has a limited supply of vaccine and will first vaccinate veterans in long-term care facilities and VA health care personnel, according to the VA website.
"After the first 2 groups, we'll begin to offer vaccines to more Veterans who are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19." The website states. "When more vaccines become available, we plan to offer a free COVID-19 vaccine to all Veterans receiving VA health care who want one."
The VA's initial vaccine distribution sites were chosen based on criteria including freezer availability and the ability to vaccinate a large volume of people quickly, Daniel Gutkoski, manager of the VA's Manila clinic, said in a Dec. 22 email to Stars and Stripes.
"There is no set date for when VA Manila Outpatient Clinic will receive the vaccine, but we are prepared and stand ready to accept a vaccine once it becomes available to us," he said.
The VA's goal is to offer the vaccine to eligible veterans receiving care the VA and all employees, he said.
However, Applegate, a retired Navy noncommissioned officer, in a Dec. 22 email to Stars and Stripes said he can't enroll at the Manila clinic even though he is rated a disabled veteran because it has no orthopedic doctor there who can treat his foot condition.
"That means I cannot get the U.S. produced COVID-19 vaccine coming from the U.S., which will be administered to only veterans enrolled at the VA Outpatient Clinic Manila," he said. "This affects not only me, but thousands of other veterans living here in the Philippines. Veterans have been kicked to the curb by the U.S. Government after serving our country honorably under arduous, dangerous conditions."
Another signer, John Doulette, a former Marine living in Imus City near Manila, in a Dec. 22 email said it's unfair that disabled veterans in the islands won't get the vaccine if they are denied enrollment at the clinic.
"Given the seriousness of this pandemic, Veterans stateside are being vaccinated at local VA facilities," Doulette said. "Veterans whether service connected or not should also be afforded this vital life-saving vaccine here while residing in the Philippines."
The Philippine government plans to purchase and administer a coronavirus vaccine to its citizens but doesn't appear to have a plan to vaccinate foreign residents, the veterans wrote in their letter.
The veterans want the Navy to deploy its hospital ships, the USS Comfort and USS Mercy, to the Philippines to assist with vaccinations for veterans, their letter states.
"These hospital ships could be deployed to areas in the world where a large concentration of Americans resides to assist the VA and U.S. Embassies throughout the world to administer the vaccine to the American population, not just here in the Philippines," the veterans wrote.