The VA Maine Healthcare System has been authorized to hire nearly 40 new employees as part of a federal reform law passed last year.

Of those, more than two-fifths are slated to be devoted to mental health services, an embattled unit within the federal veterans’ healthcare network run statewide from Togus, a campus just outside of Augusta.

In October, the Office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs visited Togus to inspect mental health services after numerous allegations of wrongdoing, including claims that Togus officials took shortcuts and withheld information from patient files in order to meet federal benchmarks.

The watchdog office’s report hasn’t been returned yet, but the allegations linked Togus for the first time to issues similar to those at other veterans’ hospitals that sparked a national scandal over the practice of covering up wait times that may have led to patient deaths. Ryan Lilly, Togus’ director, said in November that he hasn’t seen evidence supporting the allegations.

Among the allegations was a claim that officials left out information from patient files about mental illnesses — which could have stemmed from combat and needed treatment — allegedly to tamp down the number of veterans seeking care at centers across Maine, according to a memo from the inspector general’s office, which was obtained from Togus and reported by the Kennebec Journal last year.

The document also says Togus officials may have used scheduling ploys that masked the true amount of time that patients waited for appointments.


From the national scandal came the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in August. The $16 billion measure provided funding to private doctors to treat rural veterans or those with long wait times and gave the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs $5 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health providers.

Under the law, Maine’s VA system — which serves 40,000 veterans and employs 1,360 people — gained 38.8 full-time equivalent positions, said Togus spokesman James Doherty. Of those, Doherty said 17 will be devoted to mental health services, including four psychiatrists, two psychologists, a nurse and five social workers. It’ll be the biggest one-time staff increase at Togus in a decade, he said.

Doherty said the rest of the employees will be hired in many other departments, with 18.8 devoted to specialty care and three devoted to primary care. Recruiting has begun and the hospital hopes to hire the employees by the summer, he said. Doherty said the number of mental health hires was set by the department’s headquarters in Washington and was not motivated by the watchdog agency’s probe.

Lilly has admitted a mental health staffing problem in a time of growing demand. Between 2011 and 2014, requests for mental health appointments rose by 30 percent, and staffing fluctuated between 72 and 80 between 2012 and 2014, according to hospital data.

Gary Laweryson of Waldoboro, chairman of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, a group of veterans service organizations, is among the Maine advocates who have long complained of low mental health staffing levels. While he applauded the news of the hires, he said finding out whether or not they will fit well at Togus is “a wait-and-see thing.”

“So, that’s a good function if we can get them in,” he said. “And the next thing is, if we get them in, are they any good?”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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