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Boozman Leads Colleagues in opposing use of VA personnel to support expected Southern border surge

U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR), the lead Republican appropriator for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funding and a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is demanding the Biden administration commit to preventing VA health care professionals from being used to facilitate an expected surge of illegal immigration as a result of the reversal of a Trump-era immigration policy.

In a letter to President Biden, Boozman and 10 of his colleagues call on the president to prioritize veterans’ care and services over that of illegal immigrants and abandon any plans for VA personnel to carry out its Fourth Mission in support of an interagency response when the Title 42 authority, which allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to prohibit entry to those who pose health risks such as COVID-19, ends next month.

“[The] “Fourth Mission” is not a tool to clean up the mess from a foreseeable and avoidable crisis, especially while the VA is already experiencing record-high turnover rates and issues of workforce resiliency amongst its health care employees,” the senators wrote.

The VA is experiencing a 15-year high turnover rate with its nursing staff and increased vacancies for a wide variety of health care professionals.

“The burden of addressing this Administration’s abject failure to contain the crisis at the southern border should not come at the expense of our nation’s veterans. Prioritizing the care of illegal immigrants before the needs of veterans is inconceivable and wrong. We have an obligation to provide quality and timely care to the men and women who bravely served our country. We strongly disapprove of any decisions which hinder successfully fulfilling that mission,” the senators continued.

The letter was signed by Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Richard Burr (R-NC), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Roger Wicker (R-MS), John Cornyn (R-TX), Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK).

The full letter can be found here and below:

Dear President Biden: 

We write to express disapproval of any contingency plan which uses personnel from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to deal with the inevitable escalation of the border crisis once your Administration rescinds its Title 42 Order. The VA is currently experiencing major staffing shortages and high workforce turnover rates. The deployment of VA personnel in a “Fourth Mission” capacity will impact veterans’ ability to receive timely care from the VA and should not be a consideration while developing your Administration’s plan as a result of the failure to implement and maintain commonsense border security policies.

The VA’s “Fourth Mission” is to “improve the nation’s preparedness for response to war, terrorism, national emergencies, and natural disasters by developing plans and taking action to ensure continued service to Veterans, as well as to support national, state, and local emergency management, public health, safety, and homeland security efforts.” Congress recognizes and remains grateful for the essential role of VA personnel in responding to fulfill the VA’s “Fourth Mission” during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the “Fourth Mission” is not a tool to clean up the mess from a foreseeable and avoidable crisis, especially while the VA is already experiencing record-high turnover rates and issues of workforce resiliency amongst its health care employees.

The United States is currently experiencing a record-breaking number of border encounters. As you know, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported over 1.6 million border encounters in the Fiscal Year 2021, which is the highest annual total on record. The Title 42 Order has been used over one million times and has been essential for CBP to deny entry to illegal immigrants. Reports indicate that your Administration is aware of the inevitable surge of illegal immigrants once this authority ends. Officials in the Department of Homeland Security are requesting support from other agencies such as the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, and Health and Human Services. There is bipartisan support in the Senate requesting a detailed plan be made available before revoking this authority. These plans should not include using the VA’s “Fourth Mission.”

The VA loses roughly 40,000 individuals in a typical year due to retirement, firings, or outside employment. Right now there are more than 10,000 additional vacancies within the VHA workforce of doctors, nurses, and other essential staff. Additionally, the VA is experiencing a 15-year high turnover rate amongst its nursing workforce. A strained and insufficient workforce directly impacts the Department’s ability to provide timely access to veterans’ care at the VA. Congress has recently taken action to address the VA’s record-high turnover by passing the RAISE Act, which empowers the VA to pay its employees a higher wage and increase competitiveness with private-sector employers. In February 2022, VA Secretary Denis McDonough also announced the VA’s “10-point human infrastructure plan” to help the Department recruit and retain its workforce. The pandemic has highlighted the VA’s need to create a more resilient workforce, which has been a priority for Congress and the VA. The White House must reject procedures diverting the attention of an already overextended workforce away from veteran’s care.

If the Title 42 Order is rescinded, it is necessary that you provide a detailed plan to Congress and that it does not rely on the VA’s “Fourth Mission.” The VA plays an essential role in responding to a crisis when called; however, it must not be part of the response plan to a foreseeable problem when the circumstance is avoidable. The burden of addressing this Administration’s abject failure to contain the crisis at the southern border should not come at the expense of our nation’s veterans. Prioritizing the care of illegal immigrants before the needs of veterans is inconceivable and wrong. We have an obligation to provide quality and timely care to the men and women who bravely served our country. We strongly disapprove of any decisions which hinder successfully fulfilling that mission. That is why we call on the Administration to commit not to use VA health care professionals in any capacity regarding the border crisis of your creation as contingency plans are being developed for the disastrous decision to rescind CBP’s authority to execute its Title 42 Order.

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