LEWISTON — A shortage of mental health counselors at the Vets Center in Lewiston that drew the attention of Maine’s Congressional delegation has also prompted a visit from the acting regional manager for the program.

That manager, Steven Reeves of Fairfield, Calif., who is also the manager for the Vets Center program in the Pacific Western region, is expected to visit and tour the center in Lewiston on Oct. 13, and the other four Vets Centers in Maine that stretch from Portland to Caribou that week.

Lewiston’s Mayor Robert Macdonald expressed concern about the shortages during a meeting at Auburn Hall in early September with 2nd District Congressman Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, and other local elected officials.

Lewiston’s center, which is authorized to have eight staff who can counsel veterans, was down to just three in early September. Vacant positions included a team leader who can offer counseling and coordinates activities. The position that has been vacant for nearly two years.

After a report in the Sun Journal, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, along with Poliquin, wrote joint letters to Reeves and Ryan Lilly, the director of the Maine VA Healthcare System, based at Togus in Augusta, expressing their “grave concerns” about the vacancies.

On Wednesday, an interim team leader who works from the Lewiston center once a week and who is also the team leader for Portland’s Vets Center said one additional social worker has been hired since September and is offering counseling to veterans in Lewiston.  

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He also said Vets Center officials were continuing efforts to fill the remaining vacancies, including the team leader position.

According to a letter from Lilly  to Collins, King and Poliquin, two of the open positions had yet to posted.

Lilly wrote that one of the four vacancies had been filled and that officials are gaining ground on hiring a team leader. Candidates for the Lewiston center had been identified and forwarded to Reeves but a final selection had not been made, Lilly wrote.

The center is operated separately from the VA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Lewiston and is not under the direct auspices of Lilly. The VA does provide human resources support for the center, including advertising open jobs and providing the center with qualified finalists for open positions.  

The Maine VA also vets those who may be offered jobs for qualifications and does criminal background checks to ensure they are not ineligible for federal service.

“I share your concern about these vacancies and have asked my staff to prioritize filing these vacant positions,” Lilly wrote to the federal lawmakers.

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Reeves said by phone Wednesday that he would be in Maine on Tuesday and was looking forward to spending time in Lewiston as well as at the state’s other Vets Centers in Caribou, Bangor, Portland and Sanford.

Reeves also said the Human Resources department with the VA in Maine was providing “excellent service” in recruiting candidates for the vacancies and that he intended to make a selection for the team leader post prior to his arrival next week. He cautioned that the final decision on that position would have to first be vetted by the VA.

“My selection won’t necessarily be official, but the interviews will be complete before I arrive there Monday evening,” Reeves said.

Meanwhile, Collins, King and Poliquin issued a joint statement expressing their ongoing concern but also satisfaction that Reeves and the VA staff  in Maine were acting to try and ensure Lewiston’s Vets Center and the others in Maine had adequate staff.

“Ensuring that our veterans have access to high-quality care is one of our highest priorities, which is why we remain troubled by staffing shortages at Vets Centers across the state – including in Lewiston – that could affect the quality of care and availability of critical services needed by our veterans,” Collins, King and Poliquin said in a joint statement released to the Sun Journal. “We appreciate Director Lilly’s willingness to address these concerns and fill any remaining vacancies as expeditiously as possible. We are also pleased that Mr. Steve Reeves, the interim director for the northeast region, has committed to touring every Vets Center in the state of Maine next week.”

Mayor Macdonald, himself a combat veteran of the Marine Corps who served in Vietnam and participates in group counseling at the center, said he believes in the center’s mission and was pleased by the response from Reeves, the VA and the federal lawmakers.

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Macdonald said he believes in the Vets Centers’ counseling-based approach to helping veterans with emotional and psychological wounds without depending on psychotropic medications is important, especially for some of Maine’s younger veterans who have served in combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It’s really important that they don’t depend so much on drugs and these guys are the ones we are really concerned about,” Macdonald said. He said the members of his group were also pleased with the news that Reeves would be visiting and that counselors were being hired. 

He said he looked forward to the center having a full staff and hoped Maine’s federal lawmakers would keep the pressure on until that was a reality.

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