AUGUSTA — A watchdog agency will be in Maine next week to inspect mental health care at the federal veterans hospital at Togus amid alleged issues with services.

Details of the allegations that drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General are scant, but a veterans advocate says the mental health unit at VA Maine Healthcare-Togus has long struggled with low staffing levels and has relied often on putting veterans in group counseling sessions with mixed results.

The review was requested by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and gubernatorial candidate.

Michaud’s spokesman, Dan Rafter, said the office passed along one complaint, but that “it would be inappropriate at this time to comment about the specific nature of the concerns” or reveal who made the complaint.

The Kennebec Journal has spoken over the past five months with current and former employees of the hospital who have said they are concerned with practices in the mental health clinic, but none have been comfortable speaking publicly.

Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, wouldn’t disclose details of the allegations. A report will follow the inspection. Ryan Lilly, the Togus hospital’s director, said in a statement that it has “not been advised about any specifics regarding this inquiry or what prompted it.”


“We are providing full and complete cooperation with the OIG in their investigation and, if any deficiencies are noted, will work quickly to correct them,” Lilly said.

These sorts of reviews aren’t uncommon nationally: The office conducted 44 of these types of probes in the 2013 fiscal year, and inspectors went to Togus last year after patient safety concerns were raised in the hospital’s operating room.

However, the inspector general’s role in investigating veterans’ services has been especially pronounced nationally this year after a whistleblower said that long waits at the VA hospital in Phoenix may have resulted in 40 veterans’ deaths. Similar allegations followed at other hospitals nationwide, but not Togus.

The hospital is on a 500-acre campus between Augusta and Chelsea and is the oldest veterans hospital in the U.S. It serves 40,000 veterans statewide, operating other sites across the state, including a mental health clinic in Portland. In 2012, a routine OIG review found that mental health clinic staff had reduced the number of veterans who didn’t show up for appointments and recently added “veteran-centered” features in the clinic, including a children’s area and a paging system.

But Gary Laweryson of Waldoboro, chairman of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, a group of veterans service organizations, said the clinic has long struggled with low staffing levels. He said an insufficient number of doctors has led to veterans with psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder getting put in group counseling sessions.

While many veterans enjoy these sessions, Laweryson said they are sometimes substituted for one-on-one treatment, which doesn’t work for everyone. Furthermore, he said some veterans think the people leading those sessions are unqualified or don’t understand their combat experience.


That could be leading to employee concerns about management of mental health services, Laweryson said.

“With mental health, there’s a problem,” he said. “There’s a shortage of personnel there. Maybe some of them are getting burned out.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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