Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Talks Improvements, Opportunities For Veteran Care At Phoenix VA

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 3:01pm
Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 9:21am
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Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
Kyrsten Sinema speaking in 2018.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: As the U.S. has continued battles across the world in places like Afghanistan and Iraq more soldiers and members of the military are returning home with greater need for medical care both physical and mental. And with the Phoenix VA having become the flashpoint for inadequate care several years ago, Arizona's congressional members have been involved with attempts to bring improvements. At the center of those efforts, has been Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Yesterday, I joined Sinema for an exclusive at the Phoenix VA near Seventh Street and Indian School. She met with leaders there and took a tour of the Veteran Resource Center before a conversation.

KYRSTEN SINEMA: I don't think there's a better way to get access to care than through a resource center. I was a social worker in the Sunnyslope community for many years. I heard. I created my first family resource center in 1996, as a one-stop shop for folks in the Sunnyslope community to come onto the school campus and get all of the care they needed, in one building — to get access to all the care. And what we saw is that people who would have gone without care or would have been lost in the system ... instead were able to use that connectivity to get their care.

VA WORKER: So a couple things that we do here at the Veteran Resource Centers is we facilitate the communication between our veterans ...

GOLDSTEIN: So the Phoenix VA was a flashpoint of a lot of this. People really started paying attention to what need to be done for veterans. What improvements have you seen or, just based on the tour you've seen, and what you know from behind the scenes?

SINEMA: Well, some of the changes that we've seen at the Phoenix VA are an increased level of attention to the emergent mental health needs of veterans. In the past, prior to the news about the crisis back in [2013] and [2014], veterans who needed mental health care weren't able to get it in an emergency level. Today, there is a full-time social worker and psychiatrist in the emergency room at all times. Veterans who need emergency mental health care can get seen in person in the same day. And if they're calling on the phone for crisis hotline, they get the phone answered and get access to a therapist within seconds — if not if not immediately. Those are some good improvements. There's still a lot of opportunities for growth. The Phoenix VA still has a lot of work to do. Veterans are seeking care from the VA at higher rates than in the past. So the demand for care is increasing and the VA is still struggling throughout the state to hire enough staff to meet the needs of the growing population. So there's always a lag between the demand for care and the availability to offer that care. Some of the issues we talked about today involve helping veterans get access to care closest to home. So, for instance, the Show Low clinic is a clinic that serves 2,500 veterans — but could serve more. So we talked about how to help veterans learn what clinics closest to them, how to help reach out to them proactively, so they get access to good care quickly and near their home. We talked about a lot those are a couple of things we talked about.>

GOLDSTEIN: Leadership overall the VA. There had been concern that there had been changing names and whatnot. Do you feel more confident? Do you feel confident generally of who's running the VA now?

SINEMA: You know at the at the national level, as you know, we have seen a rotating cast of characters serving in the VA. I've met twice already with Secretary [Robert] Wilkie in my role as the senior senator for Arizona and have continued to call for accountability and ask for answers. Secretary Wilkie has been responsive, which is great news. But, as we know, the proof is always in the pudding. So, what I'm interested to see is how Secretary Wilkie is able to push new policies like — Mission Act — actually down into implementation in places like Arizona that, for years, had been slightly resistant to change. It's my hope that we'll see more of that accountability and an eagerness to make change. I will say that in meeting with the VA executive staff today, there was certainly a spirit of working hard to make change and improve experience for veterans. One of the things I'm most heartened by is the creation of the Veterans Resource Center, which is a one-stop shop for veterans to get access to care. They may not know whether they need care from building A, building B or building C or which department at the Veterans Resource Center. The folks who work there — the navigators — figure it out for the veteran. So, the veteran just shows up and says I need help. That's how delivery of care should happen. That's what every veteran should experience.

GOLDSTEIN:So, big picture, in the minority but we know you're in aisle-crosser. So, when you have priorities like this — you reference that you listen to Phil Boas — one of the things that Phil mentioned is you are changing the face of politics. And I almost look at it as you're almost taking the old politics bringing them back and making them new. How does that work and how you get some of the priorities done like — veterans or otherwise?

SINEMA: That's exactly right. I tell folks that retro is cool. That's why I'm working to do that. In the old days, years ago, when members of Congress and the Senate would work together regardless of party labels they didn't care if something was a Democrat or Republican idea. They just wanted to help make things better for their state and for their country. That is my approach. It has been my approach since the day I entered public office years ago. And what I'm experiencing in the Senate is a real openness and welcoming towards this fresh approach. The chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee is Johnny Isaacson of Georgia — who is a delight to work with. He is absolutely wonderful, and I am very excited about the bipartisan work we will accomplish in committee this year. In fact, I just introduced my first bill last week — a bill to expand membership in the American Legion for all veterans who served, not just those who served during active war times. That simple act will open up opportunities for veterans across our country to get access to services, benefits, fellowship and peer support in a way that many of those veterans don't have right now. And I'm really excited to bring this bill to a committee, where I expect we'll have strong support from Mr. Isaacson and from Mr. Tester, the ranking Democrat.

GOLDSTEIN: How would you define a "happy warrior" when it comes the way you do?

SINEMA: I embrace it. I think what a happy warrior means is that I'm a person who fights hard for the things that I believe. I will fight every day for my state and everyday for my country. But I can do so in a way that is always cheerfu, respectful and, frankly, willing to work with literally anyone to get things done.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: That was Arizona's senior U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. We spoke yesterday at the Phoenix VA Hospital in central Phoenix.

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