U.S. Senators Seek Probe Of Veterans Homes After Virus Deaths

A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are among a group of U.S. senators seeking an investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs' oversight of homes for aging veterans amid a spate of coronavirus deaths at the state-run centers.

In a letter sent Tuesday, the senators asked the head of the Government Accountability Office to look into the VA and states' roles in ensuring veterans get proper care at the homes and whether the agency or states have a system to "capture real time spikes in mortality rates," among other things.

"Given the importance of State Veterans Homes in VA's overall portfolio for providing institutional care to veterans and our ongoing concerns about VA's role monitoring states' operation of these facilities, we would like GAO to conduct a more detailed examination of VA's oversight of State Veterans Homes' quality of care," Warren and  Markey wrote along with Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

Their request comes as outrage builds over the death of more than 70 veterans sickened by the coronavirus at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. State and federal officials are now investigating the deaths at the facility, where an additional 80 veterans and 81 staff members have tested positive for the virus. It’s one of the deadliest known outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the U.S.

VA officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment.

Veterans homes have also been hit hard by the virus in other states. In New York, the Long Island State Veterans Home has reported 53 deaths, including 48 confirmed and five presumed COVID-19 deaths. The New York State Veterans Home at St. Albans in New York City has reported 33 deaths.

Veterans homes are owned operated by the states, but the VA pays for veterans to receive care in them and inspects them each year to ensure they are up to the agency’s standards.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office review found that the VA did not regularly monitor the performance of its contractor doing the inspections. As a result, the “VA does not know whether, or to what extent, VA’s contractor needs to improve its ability to identify (state veterans homes’) compliance with quality standards, which increases the possibility that quality concerns in some SVHs could go overlooked, potentially placing veterans at risk,” according to the report.

The senators are seeking information on the steps the VA has taken to implement the recommendations in the watchdog’s 2019 report, which called for the agency to come up with a strategy to regularly monitor the performance of its contractor inspectors, among other things.



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