After hundreds of covid-19 deaths in state-run veterans homes, lawmakers press VA to adhere to science

“I urge you to learn from this experience to ensure that our veterans, whether they are in VA’s care or in state veterans homes, get the best possible care based on sound science,” Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, wrote in the July 28 letter.

The push comes as lawmakers continue to probe patient care at state-run homes for veterans, which receive about $1 billion in federal funding annually.

More than 700 residents in state veterans homes have died from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a tally of state data by The Washington Post. Homes in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have been hit particularly hard, reporting outbreaks in some facilities of 30 deaths or more.

The Southeastern Veterans’ Center has reported more than 40 deaths. As residents fell ill, doctors in the home began to administer hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a possible remedy for covid-19. The treatment has been shown to trigger heart problems and other serious side effects in covid-19 patients, and the Food and Drug Administration revoked an emergency-use authorization issued in late March.

The Post found the so-called “covid cocktail” at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center was administered to 11 residents who had not been tested for covid-19, as well as those with serious underlying health conditions.

The use of the drug outraged some local lawmakers, nurses at the center and the families of residents, who said the medication was given without proper oversight after weeks of breakdowns in infection control protocols at the 238-bed home.

It is unclear whether other state-run homes for veterans administered the drug. Houlahan asked VA to provide that data; she has not yet received a response.

Teresa Boyd, the assistant undersecretary for health for clinical services at VA, said at a House hearing last week that the department provided no specific guidance on the treatment. Medications, she said, are frequently used off-label.

Lawmakers at the hearing demanded greater accountability. At the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, about 80 residents and a caregiver have died since the pandemic began. At the Massachusetts Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, an outbreak killed 76 residents and sickened more than 200 patients and staff. The Government Accountability Office found the home lacked staff and personal protective equipment and failed to enforce social distancing.

“The idea that you had homes anywhere in the country where we didn’t do everything possible to protect our veterans is not just heartbreaking, but completely unacceptable,” U.S. Rep Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), whose district is home to the facility in Paramus, told The Post.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said VA should increase its presence in state-run homes and “look to the science” when recommending or administering treatments for covid-19.

“We’re pushing to ensure VA can monitor and effectively mitigate outbreaks at state veterans homes,” Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement to The Post. “And I’ll be holding VA accountable in ensuring that any treatments for covid-19 are backed by scientific studies proven to work.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also said she is pushing for proper care in state-run homes.

“We must protect the health and safety of veterans in State Veterans Homes and other long-term care facilities using accurate science and data, not President Trump’s bogus claims about drugs that are unproven to treat COVID-19,” Warren said in a statement.

Sens. Tester, Warren, Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.) penned a letter to VA in May calling for an investigation into the quality of patient care and the department’s oversight of state homes.

In her July letter, Houlahan asked whether VA plans to provide guidance to state homes about the future use of diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines, saying the department should learn from its experience with hydroxychloroquine

“I do worry that we’re going to repeat that bad process on our most vulnerable veterans,” she said. “This population deserves honor and respect and care.”