WRAL Investigates

Veterans and COVID-19: Navigating the VA during a pandemic

Posted July 13, 2020 1:28 p.m. EDT
Updated July 14, 2020 12:19 p.m. EDT

— The Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center has reported 185 COVID-19 cases and seven related deaths among veterans and employees since the beginning of the pandemic this spring. At least 33 currently have the virus.

In Fayetteville there were more than 200 total cases and 12 deaths. Of those cases, 33 are currently active.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the numbers are concerning, but the system is stable, "We’re not stressed in eastern North Carolina when it comes to our veterans resources."

WRAL Investigates has highlighted several issues with local VA hospitals in the past.

Veterans complained of long waits of days or even weeks before getting access to an appointment.

Some questioned whether the VA's record keeping was being skewed to make their appointment data look better.

The VA has also failed to pay bulls when veterans went to doctors outside the system.

Now, add COVID-19 to a system many veterans already don't trust.

The VA is trying to improve trust, especially during the pandemic

Wilkie said there is some level of concern that veterans are putting off care during the pandemic.

He also admits the system stumbled through the Choice program, which allowed veterans to see outside providers; however, increased funding is helping smooth out the system.

The VA is also holding more people accountable. According to Wilkie, they have relieved over 9,000 employees who haven’t performed well.

"That sent a shot through the system," he said.

While admitted mistakes do happen and appointments can fall through the cracks, he said overall the VA is working at unprecedented levels.

"Our approval rating is at 90.1%. That is the highest in the history of this department," he said.

The VA's pandemic response

Wilkie said the VA has ramped up virtual telehealth visits during the pandemic, but it’s now time to bring veterans back for elective procedures that were put on hold.

"So that we get our veterans back into the cadence and flow of their regular service with us," he said.

However, he said VA officials won't forget the lessons they've learned during this phase of the pandemic, just in case COVID-19 rebounds in fall or winter.

Being from Fayetteville, Wilkie said he has a passion for North Carolina's veterans in particular. "My first experience with the VA was in the mid 1970’s singing Christmas carols at the VA on Ramsey Street," he said.

"North Carolina is a place you don’t have to explain military service to anyone. We have more than a special responsibility to the veterans of the state."

His mission now is navigating COVID-19 and getting veterans the service they've earned.

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