AUGUSTA — Just a day after officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notified members of Maine’s congressional delegation that they had filled one of four vacant mental health counseling positions for Lewiston’s Vet Center, a veteran who attends counseling sessions at the center said another counselor has left.

On Thursday, a Korean War veteran who attends a weekly group session said officials apparently overlooked telling “that part of the story” to the Sun Journal on Wednesday.

But the top official for the VA in Maine, Ryan Lilly, said he had not yet been made aware of the new vacancy. In a letter Wednesday, Lilly reported to U.S. Sens. Angus King, Susan Collins and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin that a new social worker had been hired at the center and officials were closing in on hiring a team leader, a job that’s been vacant for nearly two years.

Steve Reeves, the acting manager for the Vet Center program in the Northeast, has confirmed that progress was being made in getting the center fully staffed and said he would visit the center next week.

Reeves is also the manager of the Pacific Northwest Vet Center programs and is based in Fairfield, Calif., just north of San Francisco.

An attempt to reach Reeves by phone in California on Thursday was unsuccessful.

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Lewiston’s center is authorized for eight staffers who can counsel veterans, but as of early September, because of retirements and attrition, that number was down to three counselors.  

That shortage and concern that combat veterans in the region were not getting the mental health services they needed was brought to the attention of Poliquin by Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald in early September during a meeting at Auburn Hall. Poliquin, King and Collins wrote to Lilly and Reeves voicing concern over the staffing levels following a Sun Journal report on the shortages.

The Korean War vet who contacted the Sun Journal by email wrote that his group was told its regular sessions Wednesday would be canceled until further notice. The vet wrote that so far only one session had been canceled.

The center, on Westminster Street, is operated separately from the VA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic on Challenger Drive in Lewiston and is not under the direct auspices of Lilly. But 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 scrutinizes those who may be offered jobs for qualifications and does criminal background checks to ensure they are not ineligible for federal service.

Lilly said he has asked his human resources team to expedite the posting and selection process for counselors at the center but noted that other vacancies in the VA system in Maine had to be filled on a priority basis.

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Asked whether the VA in Maine needed more staff within its human resources division so it could more quickly fill vacancies, Lilly said it was more complicated than that. 

He said no federal rule prevents the VA from posting the openings sooner. “It’s simply workload,” he said. “In addition to all of the Vet Center vacancies, we have plenty of our own vacancies, a number of clinical vacancies and it’s the same individuals who have to do both jobs.” 

Lilly said the VA in Maine has hired additional human resources staff, but some changes in the hiring procedures and a new program from the federal government have also slowed the hiring process, but largely it’s just been an unprecedented year for turnover within the system.

“They are actually doing more than they have ever done,” he said of the human resources team at the VA.  “But it’s kind of been like one step ahead and one step back. We’ve added a lot of new staff, but we’ve also had a lot of staff turnover, so you are kind of spinning your wheels.”

A new state commission formed to review the state’s Bureau of Veterans Services, which was the result of legislation authored by Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, held its first meeting Wednesday.

Golden said VA officials reported to the commission and indicated there were no veterans in Maine going without the mental health services they needed, to which some commission members took exception.

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“We had a handful of Afghan and Iraq war vets in the audience and they were just shaking their heads,” Golden said. He said the VA does a lot of very good and important work for Maine’s vets and is often facing tremendous scrutiny. He said he didn’t want to pile on or be overly critical of the organization, but there is often a disconnect in what veterans know to be true and the message from VA officials.

Golden said he asked the VA officials if they were having a difficult time recruiting mental health workers for Maine and they told him no. He said officials said they are meeting the mental health needs of veterans in Maine but didn’t offer any data to show that. Several of the newly appointed commission members know for certain that veterans, especially homeless veterans, in Maine are on waiting lists to receive mental health services.

“It’s pretty evident there are staffing shortages at the Vet Centers, so it’s concerning to hear the VA testify they are meeting all the mental health needs of veterans in Maine when we know that isn’t the case,” Golden said. 

Golden, a Marine Corps combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, said that kind of disconnect is frustrating for veterans.

“It creates a level of distrust among young veterans, especially when the VA doesn’t acknowledge the problem and gives veterans the perception they are not being heard,” Golden said.  

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