Put U.S. veterans at the top of the COVID vaccine priority list- that was the message delivered to President Joe Biden from Montana Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday.
Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was among top Senate Democrats who met with the president to discuss details of the administration's new COVID relief package.
Included in the president's $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan is $17 billion for veterans to fuel a robust vaccine distribution effort that Tester said is currently bogged down along the supply chain.
"Let me put it this way, I'm not happy," said Tester. "We need to get more vaccines in arms. The VA is putting it in the people's arms at a 90 percent rate, so when they get it, it's going in the arms. We just need to get more vaccine."
At the current rate, however, Tester said it's going to be two years before all the veterans get vaccinated.
"We're going to work hard to wrap that up," Tester said. "That's part of what I took up with the president today, and it's part of what we're going to be taking up in the Veterans Affairs Committee."
Later this month, Tester's VA committee will begin a full oversight of the COVID vaccine situation. Tester told MTN News that his committee's effort will include hearing from top VA officials, pharmaceutical manufacturers, as well as top bosses with Health & Human Services.
"How much we're getting now is unacceptable," said Tester. "When I hear veterans say, well I've given up on the VA and I'm going to go to the local health department to get my vaccine, that's unacceptable. So, we need to step it up."
Tester said the sluggish rollout of the COVID vaccine to veterans is one of the reasons he's pushing hard to get Denis McDonnough confirmed as the new Veterans' Affairs secretary.
"Then I will have a point person within the VA who I can call every single day and harass him about getting more vaccines into Montana, and quite frankly to veterans all across the country," Tester said.
The full Senate is tentatively scheduled to vote on McDonough's confirmation next Monday.
According to Tester's office, the VA is currently providing vaccines at more than 215 sites nationally with plans to expand to additional sites as vaccine supplies increase.
As of Feb. 3, the Department has administered at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to more than 608,000 veterans and has fully vaccinated over 55,000 veterans. In addition, more than 411,000 VA employees have been inoculated.
Also at Wednesday's White House meeting, Tester stressed the urgent need for additional resources for other pressing veteran issues. Those issues include increasing access to mental health care and job training programs, as well as bolstering the safety of veterans and staff at VA facilities and state veterans homes. But the top priority is to get more vaccines in the arms of U.S. veterans.
"When we get folks vaccinated, then this crisis goes in the rearview mirror," Tester said. "Then we don't have to worry about putting a bunch more packages together to try and help small businesses and working families that have been hit hard by this pandemic."
As for the timeline for the first votes on the Biden COVID rescue bill, Tester said that is likely still six to eight weeks away.