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U.S. VA, Pritzker Promise Fix For Veterans Initially Left Out Of Ill. Vaccine Lottery

Pan American Health Organization
via flickr.com/pahowho (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs is deploying a fix so the more than 89,000 veterans, veteran spouses and others who received their COVID vaccines at federal VA facilities have a chance at winning Illinois’ vaccine lottery.

Gov. JB Pritzker last week announced Illinois’ “All In For The Win” lottery promotion, which will give away $10 million in cash prizes and scholarships to vaccinated Illinoisans in July and August. The lottery, funded by federal stimulus dollars, is meant to be an incentive to boost vaccine uptake in the state after demand has waned in the last two months.

But the contest’s narrow exceptions from eligibility included those who received vaccines at federal facilities like prisons or VA hospitals; the rules say the feds couldn’t provide the Illinois Department of Public Health with a list of Illinoisans who were vaccinated at those facilities, and it wasn’t possible for those individuals to submit vaccine records to IDPH.

However, after veterans — including State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) — raised the issue with Pritzker’s office, the administration asked the VA for help with a fix.

Kifowit didn’t blame Pritzker’s administration on Monday, but said leaving thousands out of the lottery was likely “an indication that…not enough veterans are serving in elected office.” She also pointed to state and federal systems that don’t communicate well with each other — an issue that goes well beyond immunization records.

“When the state isn’t used to interacting with the separate veteran systems, this breakdown in communications can happen, which could leave veterans to the wayside,” Kifowit said.

A VA spokesman on Monday confirmed to NPR Illinois the agency is working with Pritzker’s administration on a fix.

“VA officials are meeting today with the State of Illinois to work out our plan to transfer our data to them as rapidly as possible,” VA spokesman Gary Kunich said in an email.

Because VA vaccine records can’t be disaggregated with veterans’ and spouses’ overall health records, the VA will instead assign each of the 89,000 people vaccinated at Illinois VA facilities a random number and give that list to the state to protect veterans’ privacy. The list will be updated on a regular basis as more veterans and others get their COVID shots at those locations.

The list of random numbers will be mixed in with the names of approximately 7.4 million Illinoisans 12 and over who’ve gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, which is tracked in IDPH’s I-CARE vaccine registry — an immunization record-sharing platform that long predated the pandemic. If a random number from the list is picked as the winner of one of the vaccine lottery’s 63 drawings this summer, IDPH and the VA will work together to notify the winning veteran.

The VA already piloted the same fix for Colorado’s vaccine lottery this month, and said Monday the agency is now ready to “go live in any state that has a vaccine lottery.” Some states, like Ohio — which announced the nation’s first vaccine lottery last month — made their lotteries an opt-in process, but states like Illinois made lottery eligibility automatic for all vaccinated residents. Washington state got around the federal hurdle by announcing military members and veterans would get a vaccine lottery of their own.

The first drawing of the summer-long lottery is set for July 8, and to be eligible to win the initial $1 million drawing, Illinoisans have to get their first COVID shot by July 1. Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the administration believes the VA can transfer the list of de-identified numbers representing veterans and others vaccinated at VA facilities to the state before then.

Among the parties who pushed for a change to Illinois’ initial vaccine lottery exemption is the Illinois Association Of County Veterans Assistance Commissions, which represents 52 units of local government tasked with connecting veterans with services and advocating on their behalves.

"The Illinois Association Of County Veterans Assistance Commissions was disappointed to learn Veterans who gave up their place within their respective counties to free up vaccines for the citizens of the state were initially excluded from the state's COVID lottery,” IACVAC President and Peoria County VAC Superintendent Michael Brooks said in a statement Monday.

“We are grateful that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped in to make it so Veterans can be included," Brooks continued. "We hope in the future this State will pay more attention to Veterans and not inadvertently or otherwise exclude Veterans"

Kifowit, a Marine Corps veteran, didn’t get her COVID shots at a VA location, but said it would be “phenomenal” for a veteran to win one of the vaccine lottery drawings.

“I think that would be amazing,” Kifowit said. “Anybody who wins, it’s going to be life-changing.”

The lottery is giving away three $1 million prizes at the beginning and end of the contest, and will also draw 40 names for $100,000 prizes for those 18 and over.

Vaccinated youths ages 12 to 17 are eligible for 20 scholarship funds worth $150,000 each. According to the VA, some children in that age group are eligible for vaccines at VA locations if they receive benefits via a veteran parent who died or is disabled, or if they help care for a veteran.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.