TOGUS – Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake said Friday that his department will continue to extend services to rural areas in states such as Maine and reduce paperwork.

With 38 percent of veterans across the country living in rural communities, Peake said he wants to make sure they get the help they need.

“What we really want to do is ensure that it’s not just your address that determines whether or not you get an opportunity to get services that the VA offers, that in service to the country, you have earned,” he said.

To that end, Peake talked about new veterans’ facilities planned for Bangor and Lewiston, and two vans that will travel the state to help veterans who suffer from mental health problems.

Peake, the government’s principal advocate for veterans, toured the Togus VA Medical Center east of Augusta, taking time to speak with nurses, physicians and patients as he saw a portion of the sprawling facility.

A retired Army lieutenant general, Peake once served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, the largest medical training facility in the world.

Peake was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, on the tour. Michaud serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and is chairman of the subcommittee on health.

Michaud said he plans to submit a bill to the new Congress that will help places like Togus make hiring and funding decisions in a timely manner.

“The legislation will assure funding so they know what their budget will be in the new year,” he said.

Peake has been secretary for 11 months, having been nominated by President George W. Bush in October 2007 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in December. He leads the nation’s second largest cabinet department, which will have a budget of $96 billion in 2009. The budget has nearly doubled from 2001 to 2009, he said.

He said he’s planning to meet with a member of the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama, but has had no discussions about whether he will continue as secretary in the new administration.

Throughout his time as secretary, Peake has traveled to many of the veterans centers across the country. “Togus has some historic value to us, it’s the first really VA hospital,” he said. “It’s got a great rich history.”

Togus first opened in 1866 as a home to disabled Civil War soldiers and is the country’s oldest veterans’ facility.

Peake spoke with patients getting dialysis treatment, spent time in the skilled and long-term care nursing unit, and greeted Togus employees in an old theater that’s now used mostly for employee training.

He said while the federal government is trying to extend primary care and mental health care into communities, Togus will continue to be the place for major health care needs for veterans.

Veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the largest influx of returning war veterans since Vietnam, should have the benefit of getting care more quickly, he said. Those on active duty can start their paperwork before coming home so they can cut through the red tape faster.

“What we want is to get them in, get them the access to the readjustment counseling services we offer, access to the health care services we offer, so that we avoid some of the longer term complications if they don’t bother to get those kinds of services,” he said.

Peake said they’ve hired 3,100 people to process claims and will hire more in the future. He said the claims process is “significantly improving.”

Still, it takes an average of 50 days after a soldier gets home for adjudication, and for others, the average wait to get their claims processed is 162 days, he said.

“We do need to go paperless so we can better control our records,” he said.

In the area of mental health, he said in 2007, 100,000 veterans were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, including many from the Vietnam era. That’s one reason why the VA is offering van service in northern Maine to help veterans with mental health problems.

“What we want to do is be proactive,” he said. “We want to make sure access is easy. We saw that sometimes, it was those who needed it most who were least likely to come (get care.)”

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