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'Start shopping!' VA newsletter hawks discounted Amazon Prime memberships

The weekly VA newsletters generally feature a mix of stories about programs, veterans, or employees.

Updated: March 25, 2021 - 10:37pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A March newsletter from the Department of Veterans Affairs raised eyebrows internally for containing what appeared to be a recommendation for veterans to subscribe to Amazon Prime. 

The plug appeared in a newsletter that went out one month after Denis McDonough was sworn in as the VA secretary in President Joe Biden's cabinet — and shortly before the House Veterans Affairs Committee conducted a hearing on restoring faith and trust in the VA.

The newsletter, VetResources, is delivered to veterans once a week via email. Typically, the email subject lines pertain to health and benefits updates, or highlight suicide prevention or other veterans' issues in the news. 

The March 10 newsletter went out with the email subject line: "Do you qualify for 50% off Amazon Prime?" The body of the email contained a breakout section that was designed and boxed off like an advertisement, and that included a screenshot of an Amazon web page.

The newsletters generally feature a mix of stories about programs, veterans, or VA employees, and contain a series of links to the VAntage Point page. Among the links on that page are a list of companies offering discounts to veterans. The discounts include deals at car dealerships, restaurants, clothing outlets, electronics companies, and more. 

LinkedIn, for example, offers a free 1-year Premium Career subscription, including one year of access to LinkedIn Learning. Asics offers 40% off of shoes ordered online. These and other discounts are maintained in a list on the VAntage Point site.

The March 10 newsletter, however, breaks out and unpacks the Amazon deal. The answer to the "do-you-qualify" question, it appears, is, "only if you qualify for food assistance from the government." If you do, you are entitled to sign up for Amazon Prime at the reduced rate of $5.99 per month, instead of the standard $12.99 fee. You also can connect your government-funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program account to Amazon. 

The break-out VA newsletter section reads: "Register your SNAP EBT card on Amazon for exclusive benefits and discounts." 

The accompanying article explains the program in detail.

"Amazon is proud to offer SNAP EBT acceptance, competitive prices, wide selection, and free shipping options to improve the grocery shopping experience," the VA article reads. "Customers can shop SNAP-eligible groceries on Amazon Grocery ... in eligible regions. SNAP recipients can also get free access to Amazon Fresh and exclusive discounts on essential items, with no membership fees. Additionally, EBT cardholders qualify for 50% off a Prime membership."

A list of instructions on how to connect an EBT card with Amazon ends with the final step: "Start shopping!"

The newsletter and article caused ripples within the Department of Veterans Affairs, two employees told Just the News.

"It reads like a press release," one staff member said. "The VA works for Amazon now? That's what it looks like. That doesn't create a whole lot of confidence in VA, in my view."

The issue of veterans' trust in the massive federal agency was the focus of the March 25 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

In recent years, the agency has been marred by "failed leadership and a trust issue that need to be resolved," committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in opening remarks.

At least one panelist disagreed.

"The fact is that the veterans' trust in the VA reached its highest level last year," said ranking member Mike Bost (R-Ill). 

Amid discussions about COVID-19 vaccinations, mental health counseling, accountability, mistreatment of veterans, and other issues, the panelists did not address matters regarding the newsletter nor the VA's partnership with Amazon.

The VA did not respond to questions from Just the News. 

The VA's Amazon sign-up page contains an end note: "The sharing of any non-VA information does not constitute an endorsement of products and services on part of VA."