The Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a sweeping new authorization for the Department of Veterans Affairs that would supercharge the agency's ability to deliver vaccines to millions of Americans as the Biden administration rushes to return the country to normal.
The Saves Lives Act would greenlight the VA to vaccinate all veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers, and Civilian Health and Medical Program recipients. Right now, the VA is administering vaccines only to employees and its 9 million patients. This bill would open up who could receive the vaccine, regardless of a veteran's eligibility to receive VA care.
However, patients enrolled in VA care will get priority. About half of the 18 million total U.S. veterans are enrolled in VA care, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Vaccines are our best shot at ending this pandemic," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement.
"Unanimous passage of the Save Lives Act brings us one step closer to our goal of providing free vaccination services to every veteran, spouse, child and caregiver at VA," added Tester, who chairs the Senate VA committee.
The bill now heads to the House. It was introduced by Tester, along with Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; John Boozman, R-Ark.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
"I encourage the House to take up this critical legislation so we can get shots in more arms," Boozman, who served on the VA committee, said in a statement.
The bill's passing comes during a massive concerted effort from the Biden administration to get shots to as many Americans as possible, with the goal of starting to return to relative normalcy by Independence Day.
Right now, vaccines are typically reserved for the elderly or Americans with health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus. In a speech earlier this month, President Joe Biden said there will be a large enough supply of doses for every adult in the country by May.
It is unclear how quickly the VA could distribute the vaccine, but the department serving as yet another source of vaccines for millions of people could play a major role in getting shots to older segments of the population who are most vulnerable to the virus.
As of Friday, the VA had administered at least one dose of the vaccine to more than 1.9 million people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22% of the country has received at least the first dose, while 12% of Americans are fully vaccinated.
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, officials have said. Yet there is no evidence the vaccine is dangerous in any way.
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 earlier this month 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