Governor of Maine Wants Authority to Investigate VA Facilities

by | June 5, 2014 AT 3:05 PM

By Matt Byrne

Gov. Paul LePage has asked the federal government for the authority to investigate Maine's Veterans Affairs facilities, citing a scandal over the treatment of veterans at a Phoneix VA hospital who were placed on a secret waiting list for health care.

The letter, dated Tuesday, was sent to President Barack Obama and was signed by Govs. Rick Scott of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Rick Perry of Texas. All are Republicans.

"Reports from states around the country of wait times in a system manipulated by VA leaders to hide the growing problems are not only inexcusable, they demand your immediate and full attention," according to the letter. "Given the claims that high-ranking VA officials, including former Secretary Shinseki, were unaware of the critical nature and scope of the problems at VA hospitals throughout the country, it is clear that a system for significant oversight is nonexistent."

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned his job in light of the Phoenix hospital scandal, which drew new scrutiny to veteran health-care systems nationwide. Twenty-six VA hospitals nationwide are under investigation for allegations of long waiting lists and delays in treatment.

The governors also urge the president to suspend the VA's bonus system that rewarded managers for meeting performance goals, including when veterans receive care within a target 14-day window of requesting an appointment, and asked that if veterans cannot obtain care within 30 days, veterans should be issued federal vouchers to seek care elsewhere.

There have been no major problems reported in Maine's VA system, according to state veterans' groups and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who has for years staked his reputation as an advocate for veterans, and is the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

LePage's office did not respond to requests for comment about the letter, or about if he knew of problems at Maine VA facilities that have not previously been reported. A spokesman for Maine's Togus VA medical center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although criticism of Shinseki, Obama and his administration's handling of the scandal has been pervasive among Republican lawmakers since information about the practices at the Phoenix hospital surfaced, the governors' request asks for unprecedented permission for a state to exercise authority over a federal facility and the practices of federal personnel.

The Office of the Inspector General has widened its probe to VA clinics nationwide, to determine whether staff members purposely omitted the names of veterans who sought treatment, and whether any deaths resulted from delayed care.

An interim report released by the office Wednesday said 1,700 veterans in Phoenix who were awaiting care were not on the official electronic waiting list. Until a veteran gets on the list, the clock recording the wait time -- one factor in employees' awards and salary increases -- does not start.

The Office of the Inspector General looked at incidents involving 266 veterans in Phoenix and found that 84 percent waited more than two weeks for an appointment, about twice the number reported by VA officials. It also found that veterans, on average, waited 115 days for an appointment -- nearly five times the 24 days reported by officials.

The interim report recommends immediate action such as providing appropriate health care to the 1,700 veterans who are not on any waiting list, prioritizing those who are at the greatest medical risk.

Scott, the governor of Florida, said Wednesday that he will pursue a lawsuit against the Veterans Affairs Administration for the authority to inspect the state's hospitals.

Since the VA scandal erupted, LePage and independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler have been highly critical of Michaud, questioning his work on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Michaud has defended his work, saying the House committee's oversight process is working.

Michaud has also called on Obama to act, and has submitted a bill in the Republican-controlled House designed to increase accountability in the VA, while removing civil service protections for 80,000 VA employees, making it easier to fire them. The bill awaits action by the U.S. Senate.

Of the six governors who signed the letter, four are running for re-election. Three of the four -- LePage, Corbett and Scott -- have been identified as among the most hotly contested and vulnerable governors races in the country.

(c)2014 the Portland Press Herald