The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. lawmakers rebuke State Dept. for not paying group that helped Afghans

A Northern Virginia nonprofit incurred nearly $700,000 providing emergency medical care for people who fled Afghanistan in 2021. The State Department owes them.

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport in August 2021. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation on Friday chastised the U.S. State Department for not reimbursing a nonprofit group that played a vital role in helping Afghan evacuees entering the state in droves in 2021, including transferring patients to overwhelmed hospitals.

Northern Virginia Emergency Response System (NVERS), which coordinates the region’s services during mass-casualty events, stepped in with aid for thousands of Afghans during what was a lapse in federal support in the weeks after the Taliban took control of Kabul, Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

After repeated attempts to recoup nearly $700,000 in costs incurred during that period, the State Department has still not paid the nonprofit, states the letter signed by U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, and Reps. Jennifer Wexton, Don Beyer, Abigail Spanberger and Gerry Connolly.

“The failure of the State Department and the other federal agencies to make any serious effort to reimburse NVERS for these services is outrageous, and risks disincentivizing community entities nationwide from offering support in future scenarios,” the letter said.

According to the federal lawmakers, the State Department suggested in private conversations that NVERS acted on its own and, therefore, was not entitled to reimbursement.

On Friday, a State Department spokesperson said officials are investigating the matter.

“We appreciate all partners of the U.S. government who have provided critical support to Afghans relocated to the United States,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will respond when we have fully investigated the issue.”

The massive influx of Afghans to the region in August 2021 overwhelmed local and federal agencies and wreaked havoc on area hospitals that were already struggling to absorb patients during what was the height of the pandemic.

Many Afghans arrived to Dulles International Airport with gunshot wounds or trauma from the chaos that surrounded the evacuation effort at the Kabul airport, where a terrorist bombing killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans crowding to get on to planes.

Others suffered from heart disease, broken limbs, malaria, shigella infections and other ailments that had gone untreated in their country.

Most arrived with no documentation, no English and no idea where or how they would rebuild their lives.

The system set up by the Biden administration to help those individuals in the early days of the evacuation was filled with holes that were causing additional trauma, said Kristin Nickerson, executive director of the nonprofit, which was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

At one point, federal officials lost track of a 1-month-old baby who had a potentially life-threatening illness, Nickerson said.

A federal contractor tasked with retrieving Afghan patients in Northern Virginia who had received hospital treatment and delivering them back to temporary refugee holding facilities often let them languish in the hospitals overnight, she said.

Nickerson said her organization was pushing the Biden administration to fix the lapses in services. When it became clear that no solutions were forthcoming and that the local system of care was being overtaxed, area hospitals and local governments asked NVERS to step in, she said.

“All of those gaps compounded to a point where the health-care delivery system in Northern Virginia nearly collapsed,” said Nickerson, who also directs the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance nonprofit.

Her group coordinated ambulance transports to area hospitals from Dulles Airport and federal transfer points in the region where Afghans were being housed. It also set up services for translation and established a patient tracking system that, among other cases, helped track down the lost 1-month-old, who was still in a hospital.

State Department officials eventually began relying on those services, reaching out to NVERS learn the whereabouts of Afghan evacuees who had received medical care, according to the nonprofit.

Assertions the Virginia lawmakers said State officials quietly made about not owing NVERS because the group had stepped up voluntarily fail “to offer any meaningful suggestions to remedy the situation” and “completely overlooks the Department’s own shortcomings in creating this unfunded mandate,” the letter states.

The dispute over funding, which began in 2021, has not stopped the State Department from calling on NVERS for help, the letter said.

In February 2023, the department asked the nonprofit to assist with 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners who arrived to Dulles Airport after being suddenly expelled from their country.

Nickerson said before agreeing to help with that emergency, her organization laid out the terms of payment. The bill for what amounted to $12,259 in expenses was paid, she said.