That objective was described on VA’s Office of Emergency Management page going back to 2014, according to cached pages, and was on VA’s site as late as Friday afternoon. But later that day, references to the “fourth mission” were removed and replaced with information that doesn’t reference the mission at all.
“It’s Orwellian,” Kristofer Goldsmith, the associate director of policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, said Monday.
“Major veterans service organizations have pressed so VA is not underfunded. This is a national security issue,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s really frightening to see the administration apparently trying to purge that from America’s memory.”
VA has deployed medical resources to help veterans and civilians alike in the wake of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. It even sent mental health clinicians to Orlando after the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016. And it has many resources in short supply at some hospitals, like negative pressure rooms used to contain outbreak patients, the New York Times reported.
Assurances from VA that its network of facilities and doctors is ready to help Americans could help quell looming national panic that intensive-care units could be overcrowded, Goldsmith said, but the removal of that information — and little found on VA’s entire website and blog — goes in the other direction, he added.
It is unclear why the page was edited in the midst of criticism that the administration did not move quickly or urgently, with Trump playing down concerns early on.
But with approximately 3,500 confirmed coronavirus infections and 85 deaths as of Monday night, and a growing number of restrictions nationwide, there are growing worries that health-care resources such as respirators and intensive-care beds will be rationed and some patients turned away if the virus continues its spread.
The administration ordered all federal government communications about the virus to be routed through Vice President Pence’s office; his spokeswoman Katie Miller referred questions to VA.
The emergency management office’s mission statement was updated in May 2019, agency spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said, though she did not provide the text of that update. A Google cache of the page from Friday shows a mission statement that has remained nearly unchanged in cached pages stretching from 2014 to March 2019.
VA, the country’s largest integrated health system with more than 300,000 staffers in its health administration, houses more than 1,200 medical facilities, from large hospitals to outpatient clinics, that could surge resources if requested by the Department of Health and Human Services, Mandreucci said.
The agency had 13,000 acute-care beds, including 1,800 ICU beds, as of Friday, and reported its first coronavirus death — a 70-year-old veteran in Portland, Ore. — on Saturday.
“VA stands ready [to] fulfill the agency’s ‘Fourth Mission’ to surge capabilities into civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues, but at this time they are not encountering such issues,” Mandreucci said in an emailed statement.
VA also serves to back up the Defense Department’s health system in the event of a crisis.
But the agency has appeared to focus less on emergency planning and training since the Trump administration began, said Kathleen Pachomski, a nurse practitioner at the VA medical center in Memphis from 1990 until her retirement last year.
She trained and volunteered for fourth-mission objectives for nearly 30 years, such as receiving victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But she is unaware of anyone who volunteered for coronavirus duty in Memphis, where she is still the union president, because they are either new or think they have inadequate training to help.
“We practiced for a pandemic in the city,” Pachomski said. “We never practiced for a pandemic nationwide.”
Bob Fetzer, a union representative of thousands of VA employees in four states, said he is concerned by what he is hearing from the field.
“VA is unprepared. Health and safety officers are totally out of the loop throughout VA,” said Fetzer, president of the fourth district of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council.
The American Legion’s legislative director, Melissa Bryant, said it’s “troubling VA is moving away from transparency,” but she was optimistic that VA’s deletion was part of an effort to consolidate information about the agency’s efforts.
Goldsmith, who has worked to counter foreign misinformation targeting veterans, said VA should proactively supply ample and accurate information instead of removing it.
“This time of crisis has been what we’ve been working toward for our entire lives,” he said of veteran advocates.
“If we are not able to get reliable information from the White House, or from VA, then we don’t have anyone left to tell our members to rely on,” he said.