LEWISTON — State lawmakers from Lewiston are urging Maine’s U.S. congressional delegation to keep the heat on the federal Veterans Affairs Administration until vacant counseling positions at the city’s vet center are filled.

“Failure to fill these positions with competent, qualified individuals is a serious health and safety concern for our veterans, not to mention a great disservice to those who deserve the benefits they have earned,” Reps. Peggy Rotundo, Michel Lajoie, Heidi Brooks, Jared Golden and state Sen. Nate Libby, all Democrats, wrote in a joint letter to Maine’s U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King.

A copy of the letter was also sent to Maine’s 2nd District Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

Last week, King, Collins and Poliquin all vowed to find a solution for the center in Lewiston, which is operating with about half of its allocated counseling staff. The center has been getting by with counselors from other vet centers in Portland and Caribou pitching in.

The openings include a team leader position that has been vacant for 22 months, according to state and federal officials, although an interim team leader has been filling in weekly from the Veteran Center in Portland.  

That position was posted multiple times after a limited number of candidates applied when it was first posted, but as of Friday the position was no longer posted, an indication the VA may be reviewing possible applicants.

Jim Doherty, a spokesman for the VA in Maine, said any details on the search for replacement counselors in Lewiston would have to come from Steve Reeves, the vet center’s interim manager for the Northeast Region.

Reeves, who is also the program manager for the Pacific Northwest, is based in California. Attempts to reach him for comment Friday were not successful.

Scott Ogden, a spokesman for King in Washington, confirmed King’s office participated in a conference call with Reeves on Thursday to discuss the shortages at the Lewiston Vet Center. Ogden also said that during that conversation Reeves was invited to Maine in October to visit the vet centers, but it was unclear whether Reeves would be able to make that trip.

And while the shortage of counselors at the vet center is pronounced, overall VA staff shortages in Maine are relatively light, with only about 1 percent of the administration’s 1,421 full-time-equivalent positions open, Doherty said.

On Friday, 26 open positions were posted on a website that lists federal jobs in Maine, but Doherty said there are multiple postings for the same jobs in some cases. There are only 18 job openings in the VA system in Maine, including its main campus at Togus in Augusta and its 11 outpatient clinics that are scattered around Maine, he said.

More than half of the openings are for doctors or primary care providers including two psychiatrists, a urologist and an endocrinologist. But recruiting physicians and other medical specialists to rural areas is a challenge for all health care systems in the U.S., Doherty said.

Libby, the state senator from Lewiston, said Friday that state lawmakers have also asked for periodic updates on the situation at the vet center from Maine’s congressional delegation. Libby said the counselor shortage at the vet center was unknown to state lawmakers until it came out in a Sun Journal report.

“We wanted to express our concern (to the congressional delegation) and ask that they work expeditiously to apply pressure to the Veterans Administration to seek a resolution to this as quickly and as effectively as they can,” Libby said. He said Lewiston’s delegation of state lawmakers offered to help in any way they could.

Golden, a state representative from Lewiston, is the primary author of a bill that created a new citizen commission to review the state’s Bureau of Veterans Affairs.

The bill was among 65 that passed into law despite a late effort — struck down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — by Gov. Paul LePage to veto them.

It sets up a commission appointed by Maine House and Senate leaders and includes veterans of various age groups and state lawmakers who are veterans.

That commission is expected to start its work in October and to offer a report to the full Legislature by Jan. 15, 2016.  

Golden, who has been appointed House chairman of the commission, said it would certainly review the situation with the Lewiston Vet Center.

Golden also serves on the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over state laws affecting veterans. He is a Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a text message Friday, Golden said he was confident that the state’s congressional delegation and its staff were working with the VA to address recruiting and staffing issues in Maine.

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