VA to close congressional offices in Lake Nona

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has terminated a deal that allowed members of Congress to have office space inside veterans hospitals.

Congressman Darren Soto’s office at the VA Medical Center in Lake Nona is one of six that the VA will close in December.

Hospital space should only be dedicated for medical purposes and congressional offices at VA facilities “are not authorized by law,” according to an Aug. 30 letter the VA sent Soto and the five other members of Congress who have set up shop in VA facilities over the past year.

“This directive was made to maximize the clinical space in VA medical facilities,” VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci told the News-Gazette in an email.

“No law authorizes the VA to dedicate its space for members of Congress to provide constituent services. Past bills authorizing the VA to do so have not been enacted,” she said.

The agency did not respond to questions about the cost associated with the partnership.

“There is nothing in the law that either authorizes or forbids these offices,” Soto said.

In 2017, South Florida Congressman Brian Mast, an Army veteran, successfully changed federal rules that had barred members of Congress from setting up offices inside VA facilities. He opened the first one in West Palm Beach that year. Soto opened his in August 2018.

Earlier this year, the two congressmen introduced a bill, House Resolution 2846, which would make it easier for congressional members to open such offices.

Soto, a Democrat, and Mast, a Republican, share their office space with other members of the House of Representatives from Florida including Stephanie Murphy, Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel.

Soto said the arrangement saves lives.

“The worst-case situation is we won’t be there to continue to save veterans’ lives. Many veterans face serious health conditions. If they have a bad experience at the VA and then have no advocate in the building, they leave and often never return. This could result in more suicides, worsening health conditions, and other serious results,” Soto told the News-Gazette.

At a press conference last week, Mast said the VA is closing the offices to avoid transparency and accountability.

“It’s making sure we have oversight over the VA, that if there is somebody who is being failed or something that’s not happening right there, that we’ve got our eyes on it,” said Mast, who lost both his legs after being injured in Afghanistan in 2010.

“There’s nobody who’s been hurt by this. People have only been benefited by this. Veterans have been benefited by this. I get that the VA doesn’t want us breathing down their neck. But that’s exactly why it should happen,” Mast added.

Mast said he was writing to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to appeal the decision, which came from the office of the Under Secretary for Health.

Mandreucci said that the VA was not open to reconsideration.

“It is my hope that we can keep this office or at least have similar office hours in another area of the Orlando VA. If the VA terminates our congressional office, I will seek another office in Lake Nona, as close to the office as possible,” Soto said.