Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased its efforts to plan for and respond to national emergencies, including acts of terrorism and natural disasters. Additionally, in August 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security announced that military and VA medical facilities were potential terrorist targets. In light of military casualties from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued threats of terrorist incidents, Congress asked us to review VA's medical support role in emergency preparedness. Specifically, we agreed to provide information on the following questions: (1) What is VA's role in providing medical support within the U.S. to military personnel in wartime and during national emergencies? (2) What actions has VA taken to improve its internal emergency preparedness to ensure that it is ready to maintain continuity of operations and provision of medical services to veterans? (3) What is VA's role in participating in emergency medical response measures with other federal, state, and local agencies?
GAO found that Public Law 97-174 authorizes VA to provide inpatient medical care to active duty members of the armed services during or immediately following their involvement in armed conflicts during wartime and national emergencies. According to VA, while the Department of Defense (DOD) has never requested priority care from VA based on this law, VA has routinely reported to the Congress and DOD the number of inpatient beds available for military personnel. We also found that VA has taken numerous actions to improve emergency preparedness, such as developing educational and training materials for its staff, training staff at 134 VA medical centers, and increasing security at its facilities by requiring a minimum of two patrolling VA police officers on duty at all times. Other activities, such as developing a systemwide strategy for protecting its facilities and acquiring decontamination equipment, are still in progress. Finally, VA participates in emergency medical response measures with other federal, state, and local agencies by providing assistance in seven support functions outlined in the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan. For example, if requested, the types of support VA would provide include public health and medical services, emergency management, and public safety and security.