As the U.S. continues its race to vaccinate as many people as possible, the House has passed a bill that would grant the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to vaccinate all veterans and their caregivers.
It is unclear how quickly the department could distribute the vaccine, but the measure would dramatically expand the scope of who the VA can vaccinate to include all caregivers of veterans enrolled in various VA programs, and veterans living abroad who rely on the Foreign Medical Program. There are about 9 million veterans enrolled in VA care, but there are 18 million total U.S. veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Yet VA would serve as another option for veterans and their civilian caregivers, as some people are still struggling to find a vaccine or are confused amid conflicting information on eligibility.
The VA Vaccine Act was unanimously passed by House members Tuesday night and now heads to the Senate, where the leaders of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have introduced a similar measure.
Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chair of the House VA committee, said that time is precious as the nation still struggles to get the virus under control. Older generations of veterans are in a high-risk pool, he added.
"We don't have time to waste -- frankly, I'm worried that any delay in passing this legislation may force VA to turn away decorated WWII veterans," Takano said in a statement.
According to VA, the agency has fully vaccinated about 1 million veterans, employees and federal partners. VA data shows 78 percent of veterans are overweight or obese, which puts them at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Veterans are sometimes ineligible for VA care because they do not have a service-connected disability or they have incomes above the department's threshold.
Yet the House bill notes that priority will be given to those enrolled in VA care. It is unclear in the legislation how those who otherwise wouldn't qualify for care would be vaccinated and added to the VA's existing distribution system.
"After such a difficult year, stories of vulnerable veterans being denied life-saving vaccines from VA are painful to hear," Mike Bost, R-Ill, the top Republican on the House VA committee, said in a statement. "The bill gives VA the authority it needs to meet this moment."
The VA may also have to work to counter vaccine skepticism, especially among younger and healthier veterans and their families who are relatively safe from the worst symptoms of the virus. Nearly one-third of U.S. troops currently serving have refused the vaccine.
In a straw poll of 810 active-duty military personnel, spouses and veterans, more than half of active-duty families, or 53%, said they did not plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine, citing safety concerns and suspicions over development. Nearly half of veteran families agreed.
The CDC on Tuesday released preliminary findings that fully vaccinated people appear less likely to carry the virus and infect others who could be vulnerable. The findings also noted that a growing vaccinated population could lead to swifter lifting of virus restrictions.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.