HOLBROOK — Representatives of Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake met with City of Holbrook officials last week during a tour of the White Mountains.
Their purpose was to hear the city’s top concerns and priorities in need of the state’s assistance.
The Feb. 7 meeting coincided with that day’s Hashknife Pony Express kick-off events, with Navajo County Sheriff’s Hashknife Posse officials Steve Reynolds and Frank Zuicarelli attending alongside Mayor Bobby Tyler and Councilor C.J. Wischmann to lobby Sen. Flake’s regional director, Buchanan Davis, and Flake’s consultant, Dylan Lefler, on the topics of expanding the city’s local health care, veteran’s services and economic development.
A Vietnam War veteran, McCain has been criticized locally on his support of psychiatric and medical care for Navajo County’s veterans due to a reported lack of rural Arizona clinics, specifically in light of a rising rate of veteran suicides.
“The issue is not a problem with money. It is an issue of the right people being equipped with the right programs, administered in the right way,” McCain said during a forum in Pinetop-Lakeside last March. “The biggest problem that I see is when you have a veteran who has died while being on a waiting list for these services.”
At the time, McCain acknowledged regulatory violations and mismanagement within the state’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System administration.
The purpose of this year’s regional tour, Buchanan said, was to seek and establish municipal-state collaborations to better address the issues, and to emphasize the senators’ open-door policy
“If a veteran calls our office and they’re having a hard time getting their benefits, we can contact the VA benefits office and see what’s going on, make an inquiry. A lot of times we can open a (discovery) case for them to move things along,” Buchanan said, urging constituents to forward such referrals.
Holbrook is served by its Northern Arizona VA Health Care System clinic. Although the next nearest VA clinic is in Show Low, it is administered out of Phoenix. Holbrook’s veterans must instead be treated at its clinic’s main office in Prescott, a drive just shy of three hours.
Reynolds and Zuicarelli, also veterans, noted staffing shortages and extended wait times at VA facilities as critically problematic system-wide.
“Our clinic is absolutely fabulous,” Wischmann said. “The only problem is, if I get a cold, I have to go to Prescott to be treated. And that’s OK — if you don’t have a major medical issue.”
Tyler emphasized the impact the disparity in the state’s regional VA hospitals has on Holbrook’s veterans.
“We have VA hospitals in Tucson, Casa Grande, Kingman and Prescott, but we have nothing in the eastern portion of our state,” he said. “Those locations serve a lot of people, particularly from this area. We have a resident, a Code Talker, who resides on the Navajo Reservation and travels to these clinic locations — and this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
For emergency care, veterans are not always guaranteed admittance at Winslow’s Little Colorado Medical Center, Wischmann said, hypothetically describing what could amount to a five-hour wait at Winslow versus the shorter drive to Prescott, by comparison.
Wischmann and the mayor pushed for the representatives’ backing for a combined-use outpatient and senior care facility to serve Holbrook’s veteran and general population at the site of the city’s shuttered hospital complex.
Holbrook’s original hospital, which once stood at the city’s center, was relocated and rebuilt as the now-vacant Community General Hospital, a 25-bed facility which closed in 1991.
Noting the lack of broadband access to attract industries to the region, Mayor Tyler also raised in the discussion the impending closure of the nearby Cholla generating station and its direct impact on Holbrook’s economic future.
With Arizona Public Service’s current coal contract for Cholla set to expire in 2019 and its nearby natural gas line infrastructure deemed insufficient to support conversion, Tyler recommended that the state consider alternate opportunities for the plant’s sprawling footprint.
Unlike the embattled coal plants supporting Page, Springerville and St. Johns, the mayor noted Cholla’s existing utilities and plot boundaries give it redevelopment advantages.
“When other towns look at our city, they tell us, ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine: You have rail. You have freeway access,” Tyler said. “Why hasn’t (development) been done?”
With access atop the state’s largest aquifer, the mayor put forward the idea that Cholla’s acreage and location make it prime real estate for a water bottling operation similar to the Nestle Waters plant in Avondale, which he said delivers to international customers.
Such an enterprise would be an economic and environmental boon, relieving drought-related stress on the Colorado River — 44 percent of which supplies Phoenix-area residents.
Overall, Tyler was pleased with the discussion.
“We can’t do it alone,” he said. “Just the mere presence of our senators being willing to come here shows us they are committed.”
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