Port St. Lucie veterans are among the few in the country that can go to medical appointments and check in with their congresspersons on the same trip. All of those fortunate few veterans live in Central and South Florida. Just two of the Department of Veteran Affairs 170 medical centers have congressional offices in them: West Palm Beach and Orlando.
Rep. Brian Mast – fulfilling a 2016 campaign promise – pioneered VA facility congressional offices.
“It took me a year of going back and forth with the VA for me to get that done,” Mast told St. Lucie Voice.
Mast has reintroduced a bill that failed to get approved during the last Congress aimed at opening all VA medical facilities to congressional offices.
“A lot of times these things are not easily pushed through the House of Representatives,” Mast said. “We did have hearing on it, but it didn’t get to the floor.”
The Republican lawmaker is a catastrophically-disabled Army veteran. He was clearing a path for Army Rangers in Kandahar when an IED exploded. That 2010 combat injury took both of his legs. When he was running for Congress, Mast said congressional offices in VA medical centers would help ensure the best care for veterans.
Once he got in Congress, Mast discovered there were lots of rules about where representatives could open offices. Those rules discourage opening them in federal buildings. They also prohibit opening offices in others’ districts.
The West Palm Beach VA Medical Center serves all of Mast’s district — parts of Palm Beach north to all of Martin and St. Lucie counties. But, the medical center is a few hundred yards away in Rep. Alcee Hastings district. Hastings is a Democrat who’d seem to have little motive to work with an upstart Republican filling a seat just vacated by a Democrat. The former occupant, Patrick Murphy, gave up the seat to run for the Democratic nomination for Senate.
But Hastings worked with Mast to open a joint office at the West Palm VA. The two brought along the other two representatives whose districts share the medical center’s catchment area.
This was groundbreaking on two fronts. For one, it was the first congressional office in anyone’s memory at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility. For another, it was the only joint congressional office anyone knew of.
“Just in the West Palm Beach VA, the eyes of four representatives or their staff are inside the VA every week,” Mast said. “If you want to understand a problem, you’ve got to be present for it. We’re present for the good things and we’re present for the bad.”
Not just that, but those representatives and their staff are meeting with veterans at the VA, hearing their problems, and helping them. “It could be for Social Security, or any agency you can name,” Mast said. “We’re there to help them.”
This is significant for a lot of veterans with disabilities. Many can’t easily get out to visit local congressional offices. However, St. Lucie and all other area counties have bus programs that pick up and take veterans to medical appointments at the VA. Having congressional offices where their medical appointments are is, in Mast’s words, “one-stop shopping.”
The unique joint congressional office opened in the beginning of 2018. It got the attention of Rep. Darren Soto, whose district includes parts of Orlando south to Yeehaw Junction. The Democrat contacted Mast to find out how to open an office at the Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona. That office opened about a year ago.
The two representatives recently co-sponsored the Improving Access to Congressional Services Act to make it easier for others to open congressional offices at VAs.
A joint press release reads:
“Unfortunately, opening an office in a VA facility current involves significant bureaucratic red tape. 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. 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.” At press time the bill, H.R. 2846, has 19 cosponsors and been referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.