Are you, like most Americans, tuning out all politicians because you assume that they are all talk and no action, that their motives are purely political and self-serving rather than based on a genuine passion to serve those in need? If so, like you, I had come perilously close to tuning people out solely because they are elected officials. In spite of my longstanding cynicism about politicians, a tiny crack began to open in the armor of my skepticism two years ago, when Congressman Raul Ruiz defeated Mary Bono Mack and became California’s 36th District’s member of the United States House of Representatives.
Even then, I had the jaded thought, “It’s easy for a politician to say the right things in order to get elected. But I hear that the hardest election campaign for a victor is the second one, because opposing forces might not have expected that first victory and have two years to get mobilized for the race for the House seat two years later. So I’m sure this guy will go back on his campaign promises, will show himself to be more worried about being re-elected than about serving his constituents and Americans in general.”
Congressman Ruiz invited me to serve on his Veterans Advisory Board, and I accepted. When I told a highly respected veteran of whom I have a great opinion that this legislator has such a Board, he said cynically, “Oh, Paula, they all do.” So I thought maybe the creation of that Board was just for show.
My skepticism on all counts was unjustified, and I write this in the hope of restoring readers’ faith in the American system, because it turns out that it can work when elected officials maintain their integrity and their passion to serve.
It would take pages and pages to recount all that Congressman Ruiz and his terrific staff have done for his constituents during his short time in office, but I will focus here primarily on the October 15, 2014, meeting he convened and what led up to it. I have learned – and have data to prove – that most Americans do not want to think about veterans, but I ask that you read the rest of this essay even if you are not a veteran, because you will see that what he did at that meeting is a model of what we long for politicians to do.
Soon after the recent VA scandals hit the headlines, I had attended a meeting of the Congressman’s Veterans Advisory Board and was delighted to hear him say that his first priority was how to get veterans’ healthcare needs met in a timely way. He has a terrific analytical mind, and you could see that his years of experience as an Emergency Room physician, his Harvard Kennedy School degree in public policy, and his Harvard degree in public health combined to steer him away from unproductively just laying blame and instead focused him on how to help those in need…and how to do it fast. Doing the latter of course included identifying the policies and individuals that had led to the disastrous problems, including unnecessary deaths, that had just been revealed at the Phoenix, AZ, facility, but by the time of our meeting, Dr. Ruiz had taken immediate action: He had contacted the member of the House of Representatives whose district includes Phoenix and had offered to come and bring other doctors and professionals to Phoenix to provide care right away. This is what he did when he went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and his action-oriented approach is also seen in his annual gathering of professionals to provide free healthcare to uninsured or underinsured residents of the very low-income area of Coachella Valley, CA, where he grew up.
The faith-restoring purpose of the later meeting on October 15 was clearly-defined as getting immediate help to those who need it in his own district. Congressman Ruiz says the goal is providing “veteran-based care,” and it is poignant that at this stage, it cannot just be called “care” but that the term “veteran-based” must be added as a reminder that what matters is to get a rigid, bureaucratic system refocused on its reason for existing.
Working with Loma Linda VA staff, Congressman Ruiz had learned that they were working to improve their services, but he knew that many veterans in his district needed to receive care sooner than the Loma Linda VA could manage or that traveling the considerable distance from their homes to Loma Linda was a serious hardship. So be brought to that October meeting officials from Loma Linda, from the Riverside County Medical Society, and Tri-West Healthcare Alliance Corporation – an insurance collaborative providing coverage for veterans to be treated by practitioners who are not in the VA system. Also attending were individual practitioners from the district who wanted to provide services to veterans right near where they live.
Here is what was a joy to watch: Congressman Ruiz made a brief introductory speech but never mentioned the upcoming election and did not blow his own horn. He had arranged for others to speak as well. And boy, can he run a meeting! He has a laser-like focus on making sure that people’s problems are solved. He has a gift for making sure that as many people as possible are heard and for keeping people on point, gracefully and respectfully intervening in angry outbursts and expressions of frustration to bring the focus on getting those who can provide help to commit then and there to doing so with great specificity. This paves the way for them to be held accountable if they do not. Just one of many examples: Non-VA health practitioners from the Palm Springs area who were fed up being put on hold when they call the Loma Linda VA or who had tried repeatedly to get the name and phone number of the person who could give them crucial information were understandably upset, and Congressman Ruiz swiftly made sure that the VA representative provided that information.
The Congressman not only made sure that some problems were solved immediately but also – as is his regular practice – asked the audience what solutions they proposed. This is part of a healthy community organizing approach, and it leads to effective problem-solving, because everyone feels listened to and valued, and when solutions are communally created, they are simply more likely to work.
He also asks, “Was this helpful?” This is especially important in light of the way that elected officials often become insulated from the real world and of the many constituents who, feeling awe or shyness in the presence of such officials, are reluctant to say, “Actually, no. My question was not really answered” or “My problem has not been solved.”
And he ends meetings by asking, “What are the next steps?” and again focusing on concrete and specific plans for what can be done.
Congressman Ruiz sits on the House VA Committee and is in direct communication with the national VA leadership, which is looking at his approach as a potential model for VA facilities throughout the country to provide for veterans. Ruiz is a Democrat, but what he does could be done by people in any political party or indeed in any organization. Finding feasible ways to meet the needs of anyone who is underserved or poorly served does not need to be partisan and should be based not on power but on service. What I saw at that meeting is a model that should be replicated across the land.
©2014 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved