Congressman Brian Mast made a promise when he was on the 2016 campaign trail. He was going to do what no other member of Congress had – open an office at a Department of Veteran Affairs’ medical center.
“We did an official opening earlier last week,” the congressman told St. Lucie Voice.
That was toward the end of January. The office is at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center’s atrium. It may be the only, or one of few, congressional offices shared by Republican and Democratic representatives.
The office is just inside Rep. Alcee Hasting’s district.
“If you are a congressperson you have a district and you are not allowed to hold office hours in somebody else’s district,” Mast explained. “That’s a rule of Congress.”
Mast said Hastings readily agreed to a plan to put a joint office at the medical center. Hastings, by the way, is a Democrat. Mast a Republican. They’re not the only ones sharing the office space. Two other Democrats are as well – Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch.
The West Palm Beach medical center’s catchment area extends from Palm Beach to Indian River counties and west past Lake Okeechobee. It has seven counties in all. All of the representatives sharing the space have veterans who receive care at the West Palm Beach VA center and its faculties such as the Port St. Lucie Clinic at 126 SW Chamber Court.
Mast is unusually knowledgeable about the VA. The Army veteran lost his legs to an IED explosion while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan. That was on Sept. 19, 2010. He’s one of two representatives with catastrophic disabilities received while serving in military operations after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Both have received some of their healthcare through the VA’s Veterans Health Administration.
Mast’s district covers St. Lucie, Martin and a sliver of Palm Beach counties. Wayne Teegardin manages St. Lucie’s veteran services. He said the VA reports there are almost 24,000 veterans receiving benefits in St. Lucie. Not all of them are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration and receiving care at the West Palm Beach medical center.
“We know the number (of veterans is) higher, because there are veterans here not receiving benefits,” Teegardin said. “We say it could be up to 32,000, but that’s a guesstimate.”
What is clear through VA and Census Bureau reporting is St. Lucie has an above-average number of veterans. Teegardin said St. Lucie veterans have already met with Mast and other representatives, or their staff, at the VA hospital. “We’ve gotten positive feedback back,” he said.
Mast said he went to work trying to open the office at the VA medical center shortly after taking the oath of office last January. Mast got a letter of support from the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin, shortly after he assumed the office last February. Mast thought things would be smooth sailing after that. But, he said, his office got repeated setbacks as it navigated a maze of VA rules. “Every couple weeks, every month – if you want an office, you have to do this,” the congressman said.
Mast said he aims to be at the office – or always have a staff member who works on veterans’ constituent services present – on Mondays. The other representatives have taken Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
With the success of opening the office behind him, Mast is now crafting legislation to make it easy for other representatives to do the same – open joint offices at VA medical centers. He hopes it’ll become a nationwide standard. Mast said it could help improve veterans’ healthcare as congresspersons become more familiar with how VA medical centers work. “There’s really is no cost for it,” Mast said. “The VA has open spaces.”
Mast hopes to have the proposed bill introduced in Congress by publication time.