U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud stepped up calls for more accountability in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday as the rapidly evolving national scandal over the treatment of veterans led to finger-pointing in Maine’s gubernatorial race.

Michaud held a news conference in Portland to repeat calls for President Obama to reform the beleaguered agency through an executive order rather than waiting for Congress to act. He also highlighted his own legislation to expand accountability within the agency in the wake of reports that officials at VA clinics outside of Maine have falsified records to hide how long veterans have waited for medical care.

Michaud’s rivals in the race to become governor – Republican incumbent Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler – used the opportunity to issue written statements criticizing the Obama administration and congressional oversight of the VA. The criticism was directly and indirectly aimed at Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Michaud started the exchange when he spoke at a news conference Friday morning at VFW Deering Memorial Post 6859 on Forest Avenue in Portland.

“Our veterans and their families have sacrificed so much for this country of ours,” Michaud said. “As a country we have to do everything we can to make sure they are taken care of, and what we’ve seen through some regional offices throughout the VA with the wait list issue is inexcusable, it is unacceptable and it must be corrected immediately.”

The alleged misconduct surfaced weeks ago, after whistleblowers accused agency officials in Phoenix of keeping secret waiting lists to hide how long veterans were kept waiting for medical care, which allegedly led to as many as 40 deaths. Since then, other whistleblowers have stepped forward to allege misconduct at other VA hospitals. No issues have been reported in Maine, according to Michaud and veterans groups.

While Michaud aims to stake out a leadership position on the issue, it became clear Friday that the VA scandal will likely be used against him as the governor’s race heats up.

The VA controversy is 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.

Michaud and LePage are openly seeking the support of more than 130,000 veterans in Maine with appearances at events organized by veterans’ groups. Cutler’s campaign has done little to publicize campaign events with veterans.

“Congressman Mike Michaud … has had six long years (in Congress) to fix problems within the VA and demand change,” LePage said in a written statement. “Instead, during an election year, just last month, he decides to propose reform – too little, too late.”

LePage criticized both Michaud and Obama for a lack of leadership and “unscrupulous politics” around the VA issues. “The failed leadership of the Obama Administration demonstrates a complete lack of compassion and care for our veterans who have given so much to our great nation,” LePage said.

Culter also issued a written statement, saying, “the real tragedy here is that poor service and long waiting times have been an issue for veterans for years – President Obama raised the issue when he first ran in 2008.”

Cutler took a veiled swipe at Michaud in his statement.

“It’s hard to understand why it has taken so long for those in the administration and Congress whose job it is to provide oversight of the VA to address the problem,” Cutler said. “Career politicians are no substitute for competent management, and unfortunately our veterans are paying the price.”

Michaud told reporters during Friday’s news conference that he has long been concerned about accountability within the VA. However, he didn’t submit a reform bill until April, shortly before the scandal broke.

Michaud said the veterans committee, on which he has served for the past 12 years, has been focused on other issues raised by veterans groups, such as those dealing with funding, the GI Bill, Agent Orange and caregivers legislation.

“It isn’t like the committee hasn’t been doing its work,” Michaud told reporters. “The committee has been working extremely hard to provide resources for the (Department of Veterans Affairs) so they can provide the services for our veterans and their families.”

After Friday’s news conference, several veterans defended Michaud’s handling of the scandal.

Deering Post Commander Steven J. San Pedro, who served in both Iraq wars, said Michaud has a “stellar record’ when it comes to helping veterans. He believes that Michaud didn’t know about the VA problems in Phoenix until whistleblowers stepped forward.

“He’s definitely for the veterans,” San Pedro said. “Every time we have brought an issue to him he has responded.”

Michaud said that he, along with Republicans and Democrats on the veterans committee, this week unanimously voted to subpoena three VA officials to testify before the committee. It’s the second subpoena issued concerning the scandal.

The officials – Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs; Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for Health for Clinical Operations and Management; and Michael Huff, congressional relations officer – are scheduled to testify Wednesday. If they fail to appear, they will be subpoenaed to appear Friday.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, to remove civil service protections for about 400 senior VA officials, making it easier to fire them. Michaud reluctantly supported the bill, which he said didn’t go far enough.

Michaud would have rather voted on a bill he has sponsored, which also would have covered about 80,000 physicians and dentists, or so-called Title 38 employees. That’s important because one of the individuals implicated in the VA scandal in Phoenix was a physician.

Michaud on Friday repeated calls made on the House floor for Obama to sign an executive order implementing the reforms outlined in his bill. He made the request in a formal letter to the president Thursday.

“I know the president has expressed outrage at the ongoing problems at the VA and this is one opportunity where he can deal with issues immediately so he does not have to wait for Congress to act,” Michaud said Friday.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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