The burgeoning scandal over allegations that records were falsified at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals could have political implications for Democratic U.S. Rep Mike Michaud as he campaigns to become Maine’s next governor.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Michaud has been deeply involved in veterans’ issues, and as a candidate to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Michaud has courted their votes.
In a speech Wednesday on the House floor, Michaud said he supported a Republican-sponsored bill that the House passed, 390 to 33, and would make it easier to fire or demote top officials in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. However, he said he would vote for the bill reluctantly because it would not go far enough to correct the deeper problems that delayed care and may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans in Phoenix.
“I am supporting moving this bill forward today because I believe we need to begin the discussion as to how best ensure that VA employees are held accountable when they fail to perform,” Michaud said. “But let me be clear: We can – and must – do much more to ensure our veterans get the quality service they deserve.”
Maine’s other Democratic House member, Chellie Pingree, also voted for the bill.
The alleged misconduct surfaced two weeks ago, after whistleblowers accused agency officials in Phoenix of keeping secret waiting lists to hide long waits that veterans faced for medical care, which allegedly led to as many as 40 deaths.
President Barack Obama defended his veterans policies Wednesday, saying that caring for veterans and their families is “one of the causes of my presidency” and vowing to punish those responsible for long waits and other problems at military medical centers, the Washington Post reported.
Speaking at a White House press conference, Obama said an investigation into the allegations would be completed by next month and that those responsible would be held accountable, the Post reported.
But Obama said he supports VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said.
The Togus VA facility near Augusta has not been involved in the controversy, but the issue could still affect Maine’s gubernatorial election this year, especially if Republicans seek to pin blame on Obama and, by association, other Democrats.
It’s an issue that could resonate in Maine, which has the nation’s third-highest percentage of veterans in the voting population, according to the Census Bureau. Only Alaska and Montana have higher percentages. Nearly 12.5 percent of Maine residents age 18 or older are veterans, compared with 9 percent nationally, census figures show.
Michaud and LePage are seeking the support of more than 130,000 veterans in Maine with appearances at events organized by veterans’ groups. Independent candidate Eliot Cutler has done little campaigning that has targeted veterans.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, said the VA scandal “could cut both ways” for Michaud, whose six terms in Congress have largely been defined by his work on veterans’ issues.
Veterans generally turn out to vote in higher percentages than voters who haven’t served in the military, Melcher said, but they typically don’t vote as a bloc unless there is a major issue that affects them directly as a group. The VA hospital scandal could be that issue.
“The VA scandal is a real scandal,” Melcher said. “It’s the kind of thing that has more potential for people to really react viscerally.”
To a much lesser extent, Melcher said, LePage could be vulnerable with veterans because of a controversial proposal to swap the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion for an infantry unit from another state. He said LePage would likely suffer damage only if he approved of the transfer and then retreated because of a political backlash.
“I don’t think any of that has hurt him yet,” Melcher said.
Overall, he said, politicians typically seek veterans’ support not only to earn their votes, but also to show the general electorate that they are compassionate and patriotic citizens.
During his speech Wednesday on the House floor, Michaud pressed for more comprehensive reforms in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said he was disappointed that the bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, which has 150 co-sponsors including eight Democrats, was brought to the floor without going through the committee process.
The department’s undersecretary now has the authority to remove senior officials from office, but only after a long process. Miller’s bill would remove civil service protections for about 400 senior officials, making them at-will employees who could be fired on the spot.
But Miller’s bill does not address underlying issues in the department, said Michaud, who is not one of the Democratic co-sponsors.
Michaud, who touts his close working relationship with Miller on the campaign trail and brought him to Maine in April to tour the Togus facility, introduced his own bill in April. It would have updated performance standards and increased accountability for about 80,000 physicians and dentists who are classified as “Title 38” employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That’s important, Michaud said, because one of the executives accused of manipulating wait times in Phoenix was a Title 38 employee.
“The very individuals responsible for these catastrophic failures we have seen across the VA recently may not even be impacted by this legislation,” Michaud said.
A bill similar to Miller’s is awaiting action in the Senate. It’s sponsored by Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Florida.
Michaud said he hopes his concerns can be addressed when the House and Senate reconcile the two bills. If not, Michaud said he will urge President Obama to issue an executive order to enact reforms.
So far, wait times for care have not been an issue at Togus.
During the 2013 fiscal year, more than 98 percent of established primary-care patients – those who had attended the hospital before – got appointments within 14 days of requesting them, according to Togus spokesman James Doherty.
However, wait times for new patients – about 10 percent of the population – have increased. The average wait time for them went from 24 days in 2012 to 30 days in 2013, Doherty said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: