Veterans Affairs Secretary Evicts Members Of Congress From Offices In VA Hospitals

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 8:49 am

The secretary of veterans affairs has told several members of Congress that he's evicting them from offices they've been using in VA hospitals. The House members use the offices to meet with vets and discuss everything from their eligibility for benefits to the quality of the care they receive.

The VA says it wants the spaces back for clinical uses, but one of the lawmakers, Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., thinks it's personal. Mast's district extends from Palm Beach North to Port St. Lucie, and like many of his constituents, he is a veteran. He lost both his legs working as a bomb disposal expert in Afghanistan.

"I get all my health care from the VA," Mast says, "so I'm there regularly getting health care needs taken care of."

Mast has been an activist on veterans' issues in Congress since he was elected in 2016. Last year, he became the first congressman to open an office inside a VA facility, the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Five other members of Congress, all Florida Democrats, followed suit.

Last month, they received a letter from the VA telling them that their time was up and they would have to move out by the end of the year. Mast urged the VA to reconsider.

On his Facebook page, he posted a video of a contentious hearing in April where he questioned VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over security issues and suicides at the West Palm Beach hospital. At the hearing, Mast pressed Wilkie on when he would visit.

"I will say as soon as possible," Wilkie says in the video, but Mast interrupts.

"I was a bomb technician," the congressman says. "We used to always use vague terms like that so people would never know exactly when we would get on the ground. I would like a more specific answer."

Mast has linked the decision to evict him to that hearing.

Wilkie says the decision to evict members of Congress from offices in VA facilities has nothing to do with that hearing or congressional oversight of the agency. In a letter to Mast, Wilkie said the VA needs the offices for clinical space. Mast's office, he says, will be used for a smoking cessation program. Appearing on Fox News recently, Wilkie said, "I want the space. I want it for our veterans. I'm not stopping the Congress from getting their oversight in. They have offices that are already paid for."

Mast and his congressional colleagues want to stay. They're co-sponsoring a bill requiring the VA to allow members of Congress to use its facilities to meet with constituents. At a news conference in Washington, Mast said it's an easy way to improve veterans' care.

"We provide veterans with more access to care, more services and more oversight without in any way negatively affecting anybody in spaces smaller than the size of the stage we're sitting on," he said.

The VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach is a sprawling complex spread over 1.7 million square feet. Inside, in addition to the pharmacy, chapel, clinics and other medical facilities, there's a coffee shop, a food court and a retail store. And down one hallway is the windowless congressional office, which is about the size of a large broom closet.

Vietnam veteran Dennis Gelsomino says it's a small space but important for people like him.

"Having that office in there is a conduit for veterans to go in and speak with a representative," Gelsomino says. "[They] can voice their concerns and ask questions and then, in some cases, get a congressional inquiry on what's going on with their case."

After seeing what Mast had done in West Palm Beach, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., whose district is in central Florida, opened an office at the VA hospital in Orlando. Like Mast, she received an eviction notice from the VA and rejects the notion that it's because the hospitals need more space.

"Let's be clear," Murphy says. "This decision came from Washington, not Orlando or West Palm Beach. Our partners in our local hospitals see the value that we offer. And so this isn't an issue with them. This is a bureaucratic decision that's coming from Washington."

Murphy, Mast and other members of Congress hope Wilkie will reconsider his decision and allow them to keep their offices at the VA hospitals. In the meantime, they expect a hearing soon on a bill that would make that the law.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The secretary of Veterans Affairs has told several members of Congress that they're being evicted from offices that they've been using in VA hospitals. Now, House members use these offices to meet with veterans to talk through their benefits and their care. NPR's Greg Allen has been looking into what this means.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Congressman Brian Mast represents a district on Florida's Atlantic Coast that extends from Palm Beach north to Port St. Lucie. Like many of his constituents, Mast is a veteran. He lost both his legs working as a bomb disposal expert in Afghanistan.

BRIAN MAST: I get all of my health care from the VA so I'm there regularly getting health care needs taken care of.

ALLEN: Mast has been an activist on veterans issues in Congress since he was elected in 2016. Last year he became the first congressman to open an office inside a VA facility, the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Five other members of Congress, all Democrats, in Florida, followed suit. Last month they all received a letter from the VA telling them their time was up and they would have to move out by the end of the year.

Mast urged the VA to reconsider its decision and released a video of a hearing in April in which he questioned VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over security issues and suicides at the West Palm Beach hospital. Mast pressed him on when he would visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT WILKIE: I will say as soon as possible. But let me also finish.

MAST: I was a bomb technician. We used to always use vague terms like that so people would never know exactly when we'd get on the ground. I would like a more specific answer.

WILKIE: The problem is, is that...

ALLEN: Congressman Mast believes the dispute with the VA is personal. Secretary Wilkie denies it. He says the decision to evict members of Congress from offices in VA facilities has nothing to do with that hearing or congressional oversight of the agency. In a letter to Mast, Wilkie said the VA needs the offices for clinical space. Mast's office, he says, will be used for a smoking cessation program. Here's Wilkie recently on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILKIE: I want the space - I want it for our veterans. I'm not stopping the Congress from getting their oversight in. They have offices that are already paid for.

ALLEN: Mast and his congressional colleagues want to stay. They're co-sponsoring a bill requiring the VA to allow members of Congress to use its facilities to meet with constituents. At a news conference in Washington, Mast said it's an easy way to improve veterans' care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAST: We provide veterans with more access to care, more services and more oversight without in any way negatively affecting anybody, in spaces smaller than the size of the stage that we're sitting on.

ALLEN: The VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach is a sprawling complex spread out over 1.7 million square feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR CLOSING)

ALLEN: Inside, in addition to the pharmacy, chapel, clinics and other medical facilities, there's a coffee shop, food court and a retail store. And down one hallway, about the size of a large broom closet, is the windowless congressional office. Vietnam veteran Dennis Gelsomino acknowledges it's a small space but important for people like him.

DENNIS GELSOMINO: Having that office in there is a conduit for veterans to go in and speak with a representative - it's a little bit higher up - and can voice their concerns and, in some cases, get a congressional inquiry on what's going on with their case.

ALLEN: After seeing what Mast had done in West Palm Beach, Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Central Florida, opened an office at the VA hospital in Orlando. Like Mast, she received an eviction notice from the VA and rejects the notion that it's because the hospitals need more space.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: Let's be clear. This decision came from Washington, not Orlando or West Palm Beach. Our partners in our local hospitals see the value that we offer. And so this isn't an issue with them. This is coming from Washington.

ALLEN: Murphy, Mast and other members of Congress hope Secretary Wilkie will reconsider his decision and allow them to keep their offices in the VA. In the meantime, they expect a hearing soon on a bill that would make that the law. Greg Allen, NPR News, West Palm Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.