With push from New Boston vet and Sen. Hassan, all vets, caregivers and spouses can soon get vaccine appointments through the VA

Mar. 25—Randy McMullen served in the U.S. Air Force for 18 years, but when he tried to get a COVID-19 vaccine at the VA earlier this month, he was refused — because he made too much money.

In frustration, he called the office of Sen. Maggie Hassan, who then helped push a bill to let all veterans be vaccinated against the coronavirus through the Department of Veterans Affairs without the income restrictions that govern other VA services. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law earlier this week.

Soon, all veterans will be able to get COVID-19 vaccines through the VA, as well as veterans' spouses and caregivers.

McMullen, of New Boston, is healthy and energetic, but he's over 65 and has spent the last year on guard against the virus.

He has cut down on trips to grocery stores and hardware stores, and when he does go inside, he is hyper-aware when he sees someone coughing. Takeout is still his only form of restaurant dining.

"I carry Purell all the time. I have a mask all the time. I haven't been to a movie in how many months," McMullen said. He was itching to get the vaccine so he could let his guard down a little.

After hearing that any veteran enrolled for Veterans Affairs benefits could get a vaccine appointment, McMullen called the VA, thinking he might be able to get a VA appointment earlier than through the state's system.

"They said, 'Why yes, we have vaccines and we will be happy to schedule you,'" McMullen said. A VA staffer walked McMullen through the enrollment process, but then told him his income was too high to qualify for VA benefits and services. He could not make an appointment.

"Wait a minute," McMullen said. "I'm not looking for services, I'm looking for a shot."

McMullen didn't want a doctor's appointment or other health care. He just wanted a vaccination, which the federal government has committed to providing for free to everyone.

But the rules were the rules. Veterans could only get vaccines through the VA if they were enrolled and eligible for VA benefits — a complicated set of criteria that includes income, local cost of living and different circumstances of service.

The only way to change the rules, the VA staffer told McMullen, was to change federal law. McMullen didn't hesitate to call Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen.

A member of Hassan's staff returned his call a few days later to hear about his experience and see what the senator could do.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., had introduced a bill dealing with the issue last month — the "Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize all Veterans and Every Spouse Act," SAVE LIVES for short. The bill made all veterans, spouses and caregivers eligible to sign up for vaccination appointments at the VA.

Hassan introduced SAVE LIVES in the Senate. The bill passed in both chambers, and Biden signed the SAVE LIVES Act into law on Wednesday.

Nationwide, the act will make more than 20 million more people eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine through the VA rather than through their states' vaccination programs.

In the coming weeks, according to a news release from the U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs, the VA will hold "pilot" vaccine clinics for these newly included groups.

The law also urges the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to adjust the VA's vaccine allocation based on this increased eligibility pool as much as the supply chain allows.

Across the country, the VA is getting about 200,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines each week. Officials estimated that amount would need to be bumped to 300,000 doses per week to vaccinate all veterans who don't get care through the VA. The VA estimated it will need 600,000 doses per week to vaccinate all the caregivers and spouses along with veterans.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Wednesday that 33 million people could be eligible to get vaccines through the VA.

"Meeting the task of vaccinating this expanded population will be a tremendous undertaking for the VA and will require a significant increase in our allocation of vaccine supply, but I am confident that VA's workforce is up to the task."

McMullen was able to get his first vaccine through New Hampshire's system, but he is thrilled the VA will help more veterans get shots — and move the whole country closer to the end of the pandemic.

"The whole point is we need to put shots in arms," McMullen said. "It's very important to the future of our nation that we put shots in arms."