Leaders of the American Legion in Maine say they’re troubled by a federal watchdog’s report released last week linking the VA Maine Healthcare System to nationwide issues with mental health services, and advocates are urging veterans to take concerns to service officers for help.

The Office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identified problems with scheduling and short staffing last year that led to some patients not getting appointments for services or enduring long waits for mental health care at the veterans system based in Togus, which serves nearly 10,000 veterans statewide for conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Reaction from veterans’ advocates has been muted as groups digest the report after its Wednesday release, but the American Legion’s state department issued a statement Monday saying it’s concerned by the findings from the federal agency, which concluded that the problems made it difficult to track whether patients had “unmet needs” and could have left veterans “slipping through the cracks” of the system.

“This situation, of course, needs to be corrected, and the resources necessary to make that happen should be put in place,” said Amedeo Lauria, the Legion’s head service officer in Togus. “We can’t have our veterans falling through the cracks for any reason.”

Gary Laweryson, of Waldoboro, chairman of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, a group of veterans service organizations, said he sensed from the report that mental health employees were frustrated with the care issues. However, he said he thought the report could have come to stronger conclusions.

“If a veteran, after you jerk him out for a year and a half, commits suicide, then there’s some guilt that should be assigned to the people who jerk him out for a year and a half,” Laweryson said.

The federal probe was requested by former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who represented the 2nd District until earlier this year. Inspectors visited Togus in October to interview employees and review records.

Federal watchdogs said they didn’t substantiate most of the allegations that prompted the probe, including that staff were directed to omit information related to service-connected mental health conditions from records to limit the number of veterans seeking appointments. The report does not raise the specter of patients deaths resulting from any of the problems that were uncovered.

The Kennebec Journal first reported the allegations against Togus in November amid revelations of staffing shortages there. From 2011 to 2014, requests for mental health appointments rose 30 percent, while staffing fluctuated from 72 to 80 from 2012 to 2014, according to the hospital.

Togus Director Ryan Lilly said last week that some of the problems identified have been fixed, and the system agreed to fix others by September’s end. Also, Togus was authorized to hire 17 new mental health employees earlier this year.

Robert Harris, an Army veteran and former VA chaplain who lives in Farmingdale, said that until October and despite asking, he’d gone two years without seeing a therapist for his PTSD.

But after that, appointments opened, and he began sessions before Christmas.

“Now, I’m down to every three weeks,” said Harris, also a member of a PTSD support group that meets at Togus. “I feel like I’m getting better.”

The report found scheduling problems at Togus mirroring those at veterans’ hospitals nationwide that produced a scandal last year, saying employees didn’t enter appointment requests for some patients who weren’t willing to be seen within 14 days, the VA benchmark for a comprehensive examination for first-time patients. Employees were directed at times to not log referrals in their computerized system.

The contents of the report drew ire from Maine’s members of Congress, with U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from the 2nd District, saying, “Togus has failed” to give veterans deserved care. Poliquin also said he was “assured” by Togus executive staffers at a February tour that inspectors “would find no issues” there.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, said “it’s clear that some things need to change” there.

But Ronald Brodeur, of Chelsea, treasurer of the Maine department of Disabled American Veterans, thought that criticism was hasty. He said the report wasn’t “earth-shattering” and said from what he could see, there was no “evil intent.”

Lilly attributed mistakes to “an outdated scheduling system or a lack of understanding” of administrative rules.

“Overall, I think the report was good,” Brodeur said. “I think it gave Togus some things to adjust and put some more emphasis on.”

He said he’d still recommend services at Togus to any veteran. The Legion encouraged veterans to bring concerns to a service officer for help, saying “veterans should never be required to accept less than world class treatment by the VA.”

Harris agreed, saying the paperwork and many buildings at Togus housing different services can be daunting for Maine veterans first coming into the system.

“The country boys don’t always know how to relate to that,” he said. “You need a good guide.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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