Florida’s congressional delegation is pushing to quickly adopt legislation requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) to allow them to staff liaison offices in Veterans Administration (VA) facilities, especially hospitals.
The urgency in passing the "Improving Veterans Access to Congressional Services Act of 2019" was underscored on Aug. 30 when, days after the bill was heard by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, six Florida lawmakers who share offices in two Florida VA hospitals were informed they were being evicted at year’s end.
Co-sponsors Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Winter Haven, said the DVA’s action is compelling justification to adopt their bill.
“That’s only heightened interest to hear our bill,” Soto told reporters last week. “We were thinking that maybe it’s necessary, maybe it wasn’t because we were starting to get offices at the VA. Now we realize if we don’t put it into law, our rights are ambiguous at best.”
Mast maintains the offices provide critical access for Florida’s 1.525 million veterans to contact representatives, and the presence of congressional field liaisons in VA facilities better ensures veterans receive the promised care they earned.
Mast’s interest isn’t solely as a two-term congressman, but as a VA constituent -- the Afghanistan war veteran and former Army ranger lost both legs in a 2010 IED explosion and is a leading advocate for veterans in Washington.
In 2017, Mast opened the first-ever congressional field office inside a VA hospital in West Palm Beach, which he now shares with Democrat Reps. Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch and Louise Frankel.
"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 in a statement. "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."
The six Florida congressional reps – Soto and Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, share offices in the VA hospital near Orlando – were served notice of eviction by the DVR a day after Mast testified before the House Veterans Affairs committee.
In a Thursday “Fox & Friends” interview, Mast attributed the eviction to retaliation by DVA Secretary Robert Wilkie -- one of four VA chiefs appointed by President Donald Trump in less than three years -- following a heated exchange between them during an April hearing after three veterans took their lives within five days at VA facilities.
“We need to flip that place upside down to change the whole climate of what’s going on there and if the people in charge aren’t willing to do that, then they’re not doing the right thing,” Mast said on “Fox & Friends.” “There are 435 representatives sitting in the Capitol. Every one of them should be begging to be in those doors and the VA should be begging them to be in there so that we make sure every veteran that walks in there is treated with compassion. Our job is oversight and if they don’t let us in there to do that, then there is a real problem.”
Wilkie responded Friday, calling Mast’s comments “misleading” and, in a letter to Mast, said the space is needed for a smoking cessation program once all VA health care facilities become smoke-free Oct. 1.
“VA’s decision to reclaim the office space in question is not related to any congressional hearing and is rooted instead in the need to maximize the clinical space in VA medical facilities,” Wilkie wrote, adding Mast could use his offices in Washington and his district to conduct congressional oversight, writing: “You are one of only six members of Congress who currently have office space in a VA facility. None of the other 529 members of Congress, all of whom conduct oversight and constituent services, are making such demands.”
He also said Mast could meet veterans in the West Palm Beach VA hospital once a month if he wasn’t “disruptive.”
Wilkie’s response drew sharp responses from virtually all Florida’s congressional delegation, including Reps. Greg Stuebe, R-Sarasota, and Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor -- also co-sponsors of the ‘Improving Veterans Access to Congressional Services Act of 2019’ – and Murphy.
Murphy, in a letter to Wilkie, said a quarter of her congressional office's work involved veterans and the VA hospital was a convenient place for many.
"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,” she wrote.