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VA Faces Complications As It Opens Vaccinations To All Veterans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Veterans Affairs health care system has been ahead of many civilian health care providers in giving COVID-19 vaccines. Now Congress has given the VA a bigger challenge. Here's Jay Price of North Carolina Public Radio.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Many VA medical centers, like this one in Durham, N.C., have opened vaccinations to all those enrolled for care regardless of age or health status, like Army vet Dante Hester (ph).

DANTE HESTER: I received a text message. And I also received an email from the VA.

PRICE: At 32 years old, Hester was in the final wave of Durham VA enrollees cleared to get vaccinated. And then he got not just a text, but an email, too, alerting him that he could make an appointment for the vaccine. That's how, on a recent day, he ended up in a quick-moving line of fewer than a dozen vets. They were at a clinic inside a repurposed dining area at the medical center. Dr. Christopher Hostler is chief of public health and epidemiology of the Durham VA.

CHRISTOPHER HOSTLER: We already have a dedicated network with all of these patients. We know who our patients are. And so we're able to schedule directly through text message.

PRICE: But the VA doesn't have the same contacts and relationships with the millions of veterans who aren't enrolled for its health care. And the new law called the Save Lives Act says the VA can now vaccinate all veterans and their spouses and caregivers. This is a huge jump even for a system as large as the VA's.

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DENIS MCDONOUGH: We've been targeting our efforts to date at this roughly 6.4 million vets who rely on us for all of their care.

PRICE: That's VA Secretary Denis McDonough at a recent congressional hearing.

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MCDONOUGH: As you step up the additional categories that you all have now enacted, you get up to around 24 million. It's kind of a 4x growth.

PRICE: Four times more, including potentially millions of spouses and caregivers for vets. And the VA is going to have to develop different ways to identify and reach them.

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MCDONOUGH: We're going to use every channel we have. We're going to use U.S. mail. We're going to use standard email. We're going to use our social media platforms.

PRICE: The VA has already opened vaccinations to all veterans and pilot programs around the country. One key thing it's studying is how to manage the vaccine supply for the additional vets, their families and caregivers. Having enough vaccine on hand is a critical issue. Dr. Jane Kim leads VA vaccination efforts nationwide.

JANE KIM: We do want to make sure that whatever vaccine supply we have does get offered to our veterans receiving care with us first and as we have increased supply to offer to the expanded populations that are in the Save Lives Act.

PRICE: The VA gets its supply of vaccine directly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A spokesman for that agency said it will increase the allocation of vaccine to the VA but is still working out the details of how much and when. Dr. Kim says the VA wants to manage expectations.

KIM: We heard loud and clear from our veterans prior to having any COVID vaccination, make sure you don't overpromise. And we've held that in our minds as let's make sure we have what we need to serve you. And that's gone pretty well so far.

PRICE: The VA doesn't know how many of that 24 million vets, spouses and caregivers to expect, just that not all will seek appointments. Many will get vaccinated elsewhere or already have. For now, its asking them to register on its COVID-19 vaccine webpage so it can reach them.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE SONG, "THE SHAPE IS IN A TRANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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