Bipartisan VA reform bill aims to improve care at Phoenix hospital
Arizona’s U.S. House delegation has come together behind bipartisan legislation designed to improve the Phoenix VA hospital, one of the lowest-ranking facilities in the VA system.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., introduced the Phoenix VA Congressional Oversight Act in October, but the last Congress ran out of time to take action. He reintroduced the bill this January, saying even Arizona Democrats — such as Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former Marine — have been on board from the start.
The other eight members of Arizona's House delegation are co-sponsors of the bill.
“It was not a hard sell,” Biggs said. “It didn’t take more than a couple of sentences to say this is what we’re trying to do on behalf of vets and everybody came on.”
The bill would establish a congressional relations team within the Phoenix VA, consisting of VA employees who would be dedicated to keeping members of Congress up to date on casework at the facility. It would also allow members of Congress to meet with veterans at the VA.
Members do currently have access to the facilities, but it's limited. The bill would create a pilot program modeled after a system already implemented at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Florida, which allows members to set up mobile offices at the VA twice a month to conduct office hours and meet more easily with veterans.
Biggs' office is able to host mobile office hours at the VA facility in Gilbert twice a month, but this bill would give them more hours on the days that the mobile office is there, and expand the access to the rest of the delegation at facilities across the state.
Gallego said he signed onto the bill because he sees it as Congress's duty to protect veterans.
“As Members of Congress, we must do everything in our power to ensure veterans get the care and benefits they have earned," he said in a written statement. "I’m proud to support this legislation that will allow my staff to provide enhanced support to our deserving constituents.”
The Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix in 2014 was at the center of a nationwide scandal involving VA wait times. The hospital was found to have had more than 40 patients die while stuck sitting on a secret waitlist, with an average wait of 115 days to see a primary care provider.
Reports at the time claimed the Phoenix VA hid the waitlist from federal regulators in order to cash in on a bonus granted to hospitals with short wait times. An official investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Inspector General found that the wait times likely contributed to the high number of deaths.
Similar issues were discovered in VA facilities across the country, but Phoenix has remained one of the worst-ranked.
Biggs said the bill is "not a political thing," and said helping veterans is the most significant thing members of Congress get to do.
The bill is currently in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs' Subcommittee on Health, awaiting a vote. No Arizona members sit on the committee.
There is no companion bill in the Senate yet, though Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., have said helping veterans in Arizona is a top priority. Both senators have visited VA facilities across the state in the last few weeks to discuss ways to improve care.