One of the highlights of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital Friday was a roundtable discussion with the department’s deputy secretary, members of Congress, military veterans and other notable leaders.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema joined KTAR News 92.3 FM‘s Mac and Gaydos to shed light on what was said in the meeting and how effective the effort was as a whole.
Sinema first weighed in on whether the Phoenix VA has corrected all of the issues that came to light last year.
“Heavens no, it’s not close to being fixed,” she said. “But there has been some modest progress.”
The Democrat said one area that is much better with the hospital is veterans receiving care who were previously on secret wait lists — one of the main issues that became a cause for national concern. She said veterans on those lists have now “largely” been able to get appointments with either VA doctors or private medical providers.
However, some veterans are still waiting for appointments, and Sinema said she sent a letter earlier this week to interim VA Inspector General Robert Griffin about patients who are still in need of care and who need cases resolved.
“So the problem isn’t solved, but it’s better for many veterans,” Sinema said.
The lawmaker reported that veterans who attended Friday’s meeting said the care being provided by the VA has been good, but “it’s the getting in that has been a nightmare.”
Sinema said a large portion of the roundtable meeting dealt with the Veterans Choice Act, specifically the implementation thereof. The measure was passed by Congress last year, and it mandated an increase in hiring at VA facilities as well as expanded access to care from private providers.
“It’s been interpreted in a way — by the VA — to limit veterans’ ability to get access to outside services when they need them,” the second-term lawmaker said.
Veterans more than 40 miles from a VA facility have greater freedom to get care from a private provider, but the department has interpreted that to mean that anybody within those 40 miles can’t go outside that area for the care they need, Sinema said.
As far as her overall assessment of the president’s meeting, Sinema had mixed feelings about how it went.
“I was happy that we had a meeting, but I won’t be happy until I see what happens from this meeting,” she said. “So I’m glad that we had a meeting, because we’ve been voicing these concerns for a long, long time. So I’m glad the president came to the Phoenix VA; he should have done so in January [on his previous visit to the Valley], but here he is. So I’m glad he came. What I’m hopeful is that we’ll see some action.”
The Congressional District 9 representative said she disagrees with Sen. John McCain’s statement that the visit was a “photo op” for the president, and she explained why.
“There were veterans in the room who got to voice their concerns to folks that they wouldn’t have gotten to voice their concerns to otherwise,” she said. “And that’s important — for a veteran to be able to say to the president’s face and to the secretary of the VA, ‘Here’s been my experience, and here’s what I want you to do.’ That’s valuable.”
Sinema continued to reiterate that the meeting can’t be considered effective until the administration takes action on the issues raised.
The lawmaker also added that she like to see more done about mental health needs.
“Veterans in Arizona are not getting access to the full set of services for mental health that they need,” she said. “We still have an epidemic of veteran suicide in this district that is outrageous — and through across the country.”
Sinema said she’s “not going to wait at all” to see results from the meeting, and that she’s going to continue to take action and speak out on veterans’ issues.
“Because of the culture of the VA hasn’t yet changed, there’s some people who are just waiting for Congress to look away — and hoping that this crisis will fade just like others have in the past,” she said. “And I’m here to say, ‘I’m not looking away.’ We’re not going to look away. We can’t look away, because we cannot allow them to continue a culture that does not put veterans first.”
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