VA to Distribute Thousands of Facebook Portals to Vets and Caregivers in Isolation

n this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, new Facebook Portal products are displayed during an event in San Francisco.

n this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, new Facebook Portal products are displayed during an event in San Francisco. Eric Risberg/AP

The devices will be distributed in pairs to connect qualifying veterans and caregivers during the pandemic.

Facebook recently donated 7,488 Portal video-calling devices to the Veterans Affairs Department, which the agency will soon distribute to qualifying veterans and caregivers—free of charge—who might be lonely due to recent COVID-19-driven social distancing measures. 

“Our goal is for veterans to feel less isolated through more communication,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in the agency’s announcement of the new partnership, which operates under a memorandum of agreement. “We believe this technology will help veterans who might otherwise be unreachable.”

The Portal devices will be stored and shipped by the American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network, though VA will ultimately delegate who receives them. They will likely take four to six weeks to arrive. In order to be eligible, individuals must either be active participants in one of the VA’s Office of Caregiver Support programs or in a VA Geriatric Services and Extended Care program. The Portals will be shipped in pairs so that recipients will be able to share them and subsequently have someone else to connect with on the other end—though they must provide their own internet service to use them.

“Facebook offered to donate the Portal devices to reduce isolation and improve connectedness in the homes of” veterans and their families, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Nextgov Friday. Though many agencies cannot take donations, Noel noted that VA has legal authority—under section 8301, Title 38, of the U.S. Code—to accept gifts. 

She added that the devices will be dispensed “on a first come, first serve basis until supply is depleted.”

And the Portals are already going fast. VA unveiled the news Wednesday, and by Friday afternoon the webpage to sign up was no longer available. In its place is a waitlist for individuals to join, and a notice that the agency “reached capacity.”

The VA’s PREVENTS office, which was mandated by a recent executive order to help end veteran suicide, initiated the partnership. A Facebook spokesperson told Nextgov that “discussions about this partnership began long before the COVID-19 crisis began but facilitating social connection for veterans and their caregivers and families is more important now than ever, with many of these individuals experiencing further isolation due to social distancing measures.” The tech giant also recently provided more than 2,000 Portals to care homes in the United Kingdom for socially isolated residents through the National Health Service. 

The collaboration comes on the heels of an earlier VA announcement that, during the month of March, mental health providers met veterans virtually in more than 34,000 appointments using VA Video Connect, which enables telehealth care consultations via computer, tablet or phone. That month, the agency said it saw “an increase of 70% from the 20,000 appointments made in February, before the pandemic.”