LEWISTON — A shortage of mental health counselors at the Veteran Center in Lewiston has Maine’s U.S. Congressional delegation pushing for answers and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald warning that a desperate, untreated veteran might act violently.

As a measure of the problem, veterans and counselors say the local center has been without a team leader for nearly two years, even after the previous leader gave the VA a seven-month notice he was leaving.

Beyond that, the VA supervisor responsible for filling the job works out of California, and he himself is a temporary fill-in supervising this region of the U.S.

Macdonald raised the issue during a meeting between a group of local elected officials and Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Congressman Bruce Poliquin in late August.

Macdonald, a Marine Corps veteran who served in combat during the Vietnam War, said he participates in a regular group counseling session at the center, but the shortage of counselors has him and others concerned veterans aren’t getting the help they need.

The Lewiston center, which doubled its size in 2011, offers free counseling to any veteran who served in a combat area. The center also provides counseling for military sexual trauma and bereavement counseling for the surviving family members of veterans killed in the line of duty.

According to officials, the center is authorized for eight staff members who can counsel veterans, but retirements and other departures have left only three counselors on duty.

Another has been hired and will start soon, according to the Veteran Center official in California.

Compounding the problem, the Veteran Center program in Washington, D.C., has no permanent leader. It’s run by an interim manager while the VA seeks to fill that post.

Group therapy sessions at Lewiston’s center usually include eight to 10 veterans. Some now have as many as 26, according to veterans seeking counseling and support at the facility.

While officials insist no one is going without services, noting there is no waiting list at the center, others, including Macdonald, said they worry veterans struggling with mental health problems could act out violently without adequate care. 

And while Lewiston’s center has been getting by with help from counselors from Maine’s other Veteran Centers, including ones in Caribou and Portland, the situation is far from ideal, according to veterans who say dealing with their emotional and psychological issues involves developing trust and consistency with their therapists and counselors.

The shortage is a local example of a national Veterans Administration that continues to struggle under the weight of its own bureaucracy and an ongoing inability to deliver on the nation’s promises to its veterans, Poliquin said.

Last week, a new report from the Office of the Inspector General showed that thousands of veterans may have died while they were awaiting services and care from the VA.

Maine’s U.S. Congressional delegation, including Poliquin and U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins have members of their staffs looking into what might be done to speed the hiring of new counselors at the Veteran Center in Lewiston.

“We were recently informed of the issue and have been in communication with VA officials to express our concern,” Collins and King said in a prepared statement. “We have been assured that the VA is taking steps to fix the problem, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely until it is resolved.”

Poliquin’s staff are also monitoring the situation and have visited the Veteran Center in Lewiston to learn as much as possible.

Poliquin promises to see the problem resolved and staffing levels increased. 

“These are the people who have fought for our country, who have given us the opportunity to live in America with all the freedoms and opportunities we have,” Poliquin said. “If we cannot take care of our vets, what kind of country are we?”

Like Poliquin, King and Collins also urged veterans to register with the VA so they can receive health and mental health services when they need them.

“Maine’s veterans deserve nothing short of the best, high-quality and accessible medical care, which includes access to mental health services,” King and Collins said in a joint statement, “and we will continue to work on improving the care and services available to those who have sacrificed so much for our country.”

Both senators have also been working on several bills in Washington aimed at improving health care services for veterans, including the Access to Community Care for Veterans Act, which allows veterans to seek treatment outside the VA system if they are not close to a VA hospital.

Collins and King also co-sponsored the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. It requires new peer support programs, an annual evaluation of VA suicide prevention programs, better transparency of existing VA mental health resources and funding to repay student loans for mental health professionals willing to work for the department.

The shortages and long vacancies at the center could have been avoided, according to veterans and other staff at the center, some of whom insisted we not use their names for fear of losing their jobs.

“Anything you could do to possibly help un-(expletive) this situation would be greatly appreciated,” one counselor told the Sun Journal, insisting the shortage of staff was entirely avoidable and largely the result of simple inaction on the part of VA administrators.

But the VA’s spokesman in Maine, Jim Doherty, said the situation is more the result of a complex federal hiring process that takes time and involves not only checking a counselor’s credentials but also any criminal record.

Doherty said the center is operated separately from the Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Lewiston, but the VA does provide human resources support for the center, including advertising open jobs and providing the center with finalists for open positions.

Doherty said the center’s focus was on counseling while the CBOC could provide both counseling and medical services for eligible veterans who are already registered with the VA. Doherty encouraged veterans who are not registered with the VA to do so.

Steven Reeves, the acting regional manager for the Veteran Center program in the Northeast, said VA administrators in Maine have delayed the hiring process. He said a first search yielded only one qualified candidate and that he has launched a new and broader search.

Counselors and veterans in Maine said that although the former team leader at the center gave a seven-month notice, the center has been without a full-time team leader for about 22 months.

Reeves, who is also the regional manager for the Pacific Western region and is based in Fairfield, Calif., a city north of San Francisco, said he’s not convinced it matters where a manager is based.

Still, Poliquin and others said that Reeves managing Veteran Centers in New England, New Jersey and New York from across a continent illustrates the kind of leadership void that exists within the entire system.

When asked if he had ever visited any vet centers in Maine, Reeves said the closest he has gone is New Hampshire, but he didn’t see that as being germane to whether he could be effective.

When asked how staff in the Pacific Northwest region would react were they being managed by someone in Maine, his response was that the staff in his region were so competent they could perform fine without him.

“I don’t want this to sound flippant or anything, but it wouldn’t matter if I came to work or not,” Reeves said. “The staff that works in my office out here on the West Coast would perform their job and do these things regardless of whether I’m here or somebody else was overseeing the process.”

He said, in general, he doesn’t have a hard time recruiting and filling vacancies in his primary region.

Reeves said the key to keeping staffing levels up is to have a readily available pool of applicants and that he often leans on veteran applicants as federal law allows qualified veterans a fast track to a federal post. Counselors, social workers and therapists who are also veterans are often able to connect with clients based on shared experiences as well.

Reeves said he understands the concerns of veterans in Maine who are worried about turnover and maintaining a continuity of care and a level of trust between veterans and their counselors.

JP Doerr, a Vietnam War veteran from Mechanic Falls who attends sessions with fellow vets at the Lewiston center, said that trust is critically important and takes time to develop.

“To do that you’ve got to reveal stuff and if you told somebody once and then somebody else takes over, I mean I don’t want to keep repeating this (expletive) over and over again, it tears me up every time I do it,” Doerr said. “You know this PTSD (expletive) comes and goes and so to have a one-on-one occasionally with somebody or at least to know they are there — that’s important.”

Dave Bradbury, another Vietnam-era vet from Minot, said vets like he and Doerr have been jumping through bureaucratic hoops and fighting with the VA for their benefits for nearly 40 years and they’ve gotten pretty good at it.

He said what troubles him and other older vets the most these days is seeing the next generation of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq — people he and Doerr consider their “brothers and sisters” — come along and facing many of the same problems.

“The young guys, you know, the guys that are in crisis,” Bradbury said, “those are the guys we don’t want to see fall through the cracks.”

Bradbury said the suicide rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is particularly troubling to him. 

“They can’t figure this thing out, why these guys are killing themselves at a rate of like 20 a day in the nation,” Bradbury said. “I’m not saying we’ve got it figured out, but we’ve got some ideas about why it is happening. So do the people that could do something about it, but when you are lacking counselors to even do that.”

Both he and Doerr said the counselors they do have available at the Veteran Center are quality people and provide excellent support, “but these guys are stretched so thin that if they’ve got two veterans in crisis at the same time, well, they are overwhelmed.”

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