LEWISTON — Experts say Maine’s VA care appears to be far better than its counterparts in other areas of the country, where reports of patient deaths have plunged the VA and its boss, Secretary Eric Shinseki, into controversy.

“The people that I have dealt with here have been genuinely concerned about the veterans that they are trying to work with,” said South Portland attorney Francis Jackson, a leading advocate for veterans in Maine and elsewhere. “It’s not a perfect system. There are problems with it, but they’re at least trying. Dealing with the Philly office and the Chicago office and the Detroit office, we just don’t get the kind of responsiveness that we get here.”

A list of complaints against VA care nationwide became urgent following an April 30 report by CNN that the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health System created a scheme to hide its numbers of unaided patients and allowed at least 40 veterans to die while waiting for appointments.

The American Legion’s national commander, Daniel Dellinger, has called for the resignation of Shinseki and two of his top administrators. And on Thursday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a subpoena for Shinseki to answer questions about the scandal.

Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said questions need to be answered.

“We need to get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix,” Michaud said. “This subpoena order was an unfortunate, but a necessary step in that direction. The committee tried to work with the VA to get answers to our questions, but ultimately, the department’s reply fell short of a complete response. Our committee vote was unanimous because members are frustrated. The VA left the chairman and committee members no other option.”

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In Maine, Togus and the other VA facilities record about 400,000 outpatient visits every year, said Ryan Lilly, the director of the VA Maine Health Care System. Their goal is to schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor within one week and with a specialist within two weeks.

“That’s what we strive for,” Lilly said. “There are certainly times we don’t meet that.”

Some people say the average is much higher.

Jerry DeWitt, a nurse and an advocate for veterans in the Lewiston area, estimates the wait for an appointment to be about four to six weeks. In a few cases, it has gone much longer, he said.

“Some people seem to sail right through the system,” he said. Other veterans get held up with eligibility issues that seem to never end, he said.

For other veterans, wait times seem to be extended due to a shortage of doctors in some needed specialties.

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Lewiston lawyer Daniel Dube specializes in helping veterans navigate the bureaucracy, working to make sure they receive owed benefits. He, like DeWitt, has witnessed plenty of problems.

But he has never seen the abuses chronicled nationally.

“The Togus VA is one of the better performing offices in the country,” he said. “Their wait times and processing times (for veterans and their benefits) are almost always lower on average than the national times.”

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