Also on this page: Poliquin introduces bill to expand health care access for rural veterans

LEWISTON — U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, along with an entourage of staff from the offices of Maine’s two U.S. Senators, heard directly from the man in charge as to why a Veterans Affairs counselling center for combat veterans and their families here has been short of staff for nearly two years.

Poliquin was also joined Tuesday by state Sen. Nate Libby and state Reps. Heidi Brooks and Mike Lajoie, all three Lewiston Democrats.

Also attending was Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who first raised the issue on the staffing shortage to Poliquin during a meeting in early September.

Since then, officials within the VA system in Maine have moved to expedite posting the open positions, according to Steve Reeves, the acting regional manager for the 42 Vet Center programs in the Northeast, who was visiting Lewiston on Tuesday to speak with Poliquin.

Reeves will spend the rest of the week visiting Maine’s other four Vet Centers in Caribou, Portland, Sanford and Bangor.


But Reeves, who is also the regional manager for 41 programs in the Pacific Northwest region, is technically responsible for managing staff in a territory that stretches from Caribou to Guam in the Pacific islands, officials learned Tuesday.

In Lewiston, the Vet Center has been short by two counselors and one team leader for about 18 months — in all, the nine-member staff has been short by as many as five people at times over the past two years because of retirements and transfers.

At present, the centers are short three staff, with vacancies in the team leader role and two mental health counselors, Reeves said. He also said a candidate had been selected for the team leader role but that candidate may take up to two months to bring on board.

Macdonald, himself a Vietnam War combat veteran who attends some group counseling at the center, said the center does good work and he and others are worried younger veterans, especially those from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, won’t have the resources they need when it comes to mental health counseling.

But Poliquin and the other officials on hand Tuesday also learned from Reeves that at the heart of the staff shortage is a hiring system used by the VA that can take months to post, recruit, screen and select candidates for open positions. It can then take several more months before staff are actually hired and put to work helping veterans in their various roles.

For Lewiston’s Vet Center, these delays mean it could be another six months to a year before the center again has full staff. Officials also learned Tuesday that Lewiston-Auburn has the highest per capita population of veterans in the state and the Lewiston Vet Center sees about 300 veterans on a regular basis conducting about 3,500 individual and group sessions a year. But with a full staff, it would likely complete more than 5,000 sessions, Poliquin was told.


Reeves said part of the inability to hire qualified staff quickly may be the result of a system that’s an over-correction of a problem the VA had when it hired several unqualified employees. Reeves said that system — known as VetPro — is relatively new, but it adds layers to the federal hiring process that complicate and slow an already complicated and slow process.

“You would think when you were designing a system to hire people for these kinds of jobs you would want a system that worked faster, not slower,” Poliquin said at one point in the conversation with Reeves.

He later vowed to get to the bottom of the hiring delays and said that in the private sector, hiring professional and qualified staff doesn’t take months or years and can often be achieved in weeks or even days when necessary.

Poliquin and the other officials also again heard that Reeves, who has been the acting regional manager for 14 months, was also under the supervision of another acting manager who is responsible for the programs nationwide.

Poliquin said it was good VA officials were acting to fill the vacant positions but that came in part because of the “squeaky wheel” of Macdonald, and the Congressional delegation putting pressure on officials in Washington and Maine.

“If the mayor had not brought this to our attention, how much longer would this have gone on?” Poliquin asked. “That’s the scary part. Not only is there a management problem with the VA in Washington, but it affects us here on the ground in Maine. It affects us in Caribou, in Portland, in Sanford, in Bangor and in Lewiston. So we are heck bent on fixing the problem here in Lewiston.”


Poliquin said that ultimately the top levels of VA management were responsible for allowing broken systems that are unable to quickly fill open job vacancies to persist.

Reeves said Tuesday that while he understands the tremendous pressure the VA’s human resources teams are under to fill vacancies throughout the federal health care system for veterans, he believes the Vet Center programs should have their own human resources teams.

Reeves also said efforts to hire eligible veterans, who can be appointed to VA jobs more quickly, needed to be expanded.

Poliquin introduces bill to expand health care access for rural veterans

LEWISTON — Just hours before a visit with top officials for the Veterans Administration’s Vet Center programs, Maine’s 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced he was introducing a bill aimed at helping rural veterans with their health care.


Poliquin, a Republican, said Tuesday his bill, the Helping Our Rural Veterans Receive Health Care Act, would allow hospitals outside of the VA’s system to enter into contracts to provide care for veterans through the system, giving veterans easier access to local care options.

Poliquin’s legislation builds on a pilot program authorized by Congress in 2011 that tried the idea with five hospitals around the U.S. As that program, dubbed Access Received Closer to Home or ARCH, proved to be a “major success,” Poliquin said it was time to expand the program.

“Maine is home to many veterans who answered the ultimate call of duty to protect our freedoms and liberties,” Poliquin said in a prepared statement. “Forty percent of the 22 million veterans in the United States live in rural areas. That’s why I introduced the Helping Our Rural Veterans Receive Health Care Act to help make the ARCH program permanent and expand the program to more rural hospitals across the country.”

Poliquin said by allowing rural hospitals to enter into prenegotiated contracts with the VA, more rural veterans and their families will receive the benefits and health care they deserve.

“With so many VA programs under scrutiny for mismanagement, it’s important that we expand the programs that are successful and common sense,” Poliquin said.

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