Members of the Florida congressional delegation are pushing back at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) after being told to close their offices in VA facilities.
At the start of last year, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who served in the Army and who was wounded when serving in Afghanistan in 2010 which resulted in the amputation of both his legs, became the first member of Congress to open an office in a VA facility when he set up shop in the West Palm Beach VA. Since then, he was joined by three Democrats who represent the area --- U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Alcee Hastings -- as they all took turns in the office meeting with constituents and helping veterans.
But the VA has said that arrangement will end at the start of the new year, leading Mast to push back and note that his office has met with more than 500 veterans in the office hosted by the VA.
“No other federal agency has been so plagued by crisis after crisis as the VA has, and apparently they will go to no end to avoid accountability,” Mast said on Thursday. “Our space in the West Palm Beach VA is the size of a storage closet, but that hasn’t stopped us from meeting with and helping hundreds of veterans. The bottom line is that shutting down this office hurts veterans, who often don’t have the mobility to get to another Congressional office. Today the Department of Veterans Affairs chose to prioritize avoiding transparency and accountability over the veterans they are tasked with caring for.”
Mast called on the VA to reverse its decision. Besides the West Palm Beach VA where Mast’s, Hastings’, Frankel’s and Deutch’s team meets with veterans, there is a congressional office at the Orlando VA Medical Center where staffers working for U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., meet with veterans.
Murphy sent a letter to U.S. VA Sec. Robert Wilkie on the matter.
“Since February 14, 2019, my office has utilized office space at the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in order to more effectively serve military veterans from my congressional district in central Florida. My office shares this space with the office of Congressman Darren Soto. While the Orlando VAMC is located in Congressman Soto’s district, it has a catchment area of six Florida counties, which includes my district. In 2018, Congressman Soto and I requested permission from the House Committee on Administration to establish this arrangement. Our request was approved by the Committee in writing on December 13, 2018, whereupon my office worked with staff at the Orlando VAMC to coordinate logistics,” Murphy wrote.
“On August 30, 2019, I received a letter from Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, informing me that—after an internal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) review—the VA had decided that, as of the end of this year, congressional offices would no longer be able to use office space at Veterans Health Administration facilities, including the Orlando VAMC. The same letter was sent to Congressman Soto, as well as to four Members of Congress from south Florida who have a similar arrangement with the West Palm Beach VAMC. It is my understanding that none of us were consulted by the VA prior to this decision, and the decision came as a surprise. I am writing to request that you reconsider this decision,” Murphy added.
“Based on the experience to date, my office’s use of the Orlando VAMC provides a significant benefit to the veterans I represent. There are more than 35,000 veterans in my district, many of whom rely on the Orlando VAMC for their medical care. Currently, nearly one-quarter of the casework my office conducts pertains to veterans’ issues. Having a part-time office inside the Orlando VAMC gives veterans in my district—many of whom are elderly or disabled—a convenient location at which to seek assistance from my office on a range of federal issues. Instead of veterans having to travel to one of my two permanent district offices in downtown Orlando or Sanford, our VAMC office offers these veterans a convenient location they may visit before or after attending their medical appointments,” Murphy continued.
“Caseworkers on my staff currently use the small shared office space on Thursdays, and we receive an average of 25 to 30 walk-in appointments each week. Veterans seem very pleased with this arrangement, and my caseworkers regard it as effective. The VA’s unilateral decision to prohibit this arrangement, without giving me or other members of Congress an opportunity to explain its merits, strikes me as unwise,” Murphy wrote in conclusion. “For the reasons stated above, I respectfully ask that you reverse the decision to prohibit the congressional use of office space at VHA facilities. My office will be reaching out to you to arrange an in-person meeting on this matter.”
Earlier this year, Mast and Soto unveiled the “Improving Veterans Access to Congressional Services Act” to streamline the process for members of Congress to have offices in VA facilities.
“Serving veterans in our community is not only deeply personal to me, it’s also the most frequent request that I get as a member of Congress,” Mast said when he brought out the bill in May. “Opening the first-ever congressional office inside a VA hospital has allowed us to help veterans on the spot: when and where they’re having an issue. Every single member of Congress should do the same at their local VA and this bill will pave the way to make that high level of service a reality for our veterans.”
“At its core, this legislation is about helping our veterans,” Soto said. “Having congressional offices located inside VA facilities allows for more efficient and easily accessible services provided to veterans who need it most. Almost half of our office’s constituent casework are veterans cases. Since we opened our congressional office in the Lake Nona VA Hospital, we’ve been able to increase our in-person, same day walk-in services for veterans. Representative Mast and I are proof of the benefits our offices can provide. We hope this can be replicated in VA facilities across the nation.”
The congressmen bemoaned the red tape currently stopping members of Congress from opening offices in VA facilities.
“The Improving Veterans Access to Congressional Services Act would cut down on this bureaucracy by requiring the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to permit a member of Congress to use a facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs for the purpose of meeting with constituents of the member,” Mast’s office noted. “Moreover, the bill requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop regulations regarding the use of VA office space by members of Congress, mandating that the space be made available during normal business hours and in a location that is easily accessible to the member’s constituents.”
Mast brought out a similar proposal last year but he was not able to get it over the finish line.