TOGUS — VA Maine Healthcare System has added 110 staff members over the last year, mostly at Togus, and plans to add space to its medical care facilities and replace its outdated long-term care facilities for veterans, officials announced Tuesday.

Of those 110 new workers, 19 work in mental health services. They were hired partly to address what a federal watchdog’s report earlier this year called “nationwide systematic problems” that were also linked to Togus, resulting in incomplete records of whether veterans received mental health services or waited long periods of time to receive those services.

Togus Director Ryan Lilly said Tuesday that 98 percent of veterans seeking assistance now get an appointment within 30 days, and they are working to increase that figure to 100 percent.

Lilly said since the start of the year, the VA Maine Healthcare System has increased staffing from 1,350 to 1,460 people, most of whom work at Togus. He said the majority of those new hires were unrelated to the report issued by the Office of the Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in June, which cited low staffing and scheduling issues at some veterans’ facilities across the country. The agency’s report linked Togus to problems similar to those at veterans’ hospitals nationwide that sparked a scandal last year.

Lilly said while 19 of the new hires are in mental health, most were added as part of an overall effort to improve veterans’ access to health care at Togus and eight smaller facilities across the state, not specifically in response to the Office of Inspector General report. That report concluded problems made it difficult to track whether patients had “unmet needs” and could have left veterans “slipping through the cracks” of the system.

“We won’t rest until every single veteran has timely, high-quality care,” Lilly said Tuesday. “Our goal is to be a leader both in the VA and across the state in improving access so we don’t have a wait list to access patient care. It’s a commitment we’re making to veterans on the medical side and the benefits side. They’ve earned that.”

But some patients wait more than 30 days for services, a fact that Lilly said officials are working to address.

Gary Laweryson, of Waldoboro, chairman of the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, a group of veterans service organizations, said the staff hires in mental health services are key, and he’s pleased with what he’s seen.

“It’s good for the veterans, a good picture all around,” Laweryson said. “Togus, it’s an old hospital, but it’s a historical site, so they’re only allowed to do certain things there. I’d like to see them redo the hospital, which they have been doing internally. In the long run it’s a good thing, and the veterans, the majority will be happy.”

Under the plans announced Tuesday, the main hospital building at Togus will get an addition of 15,000 square feet for specialty services to improve access to medical care with design taking place this year and construction next year. Lilly said the addition will provide more space for doctors and other health care providers to see patients. The current setup at the hospital, he said, doesn’t provide enough examination rooms other than doctors’ offices.

Officials plan to build four 24-bed long-term care units to replace with more modern facilities the 100-bed long-term care building built in 1937 at Togus.

“The model has changed for long-term care,” Lilly said. “It will be more like being in a home than being in a hospital.”

System officials also plan to add 65,000 square feet in an as-yet-undetermined location to increase the size of its medical care clinic in Portland in a partnership with Maine Medical Center.

The Portland facility, which would take the place of a roughly 10,000-square-foot building there now, will be a multi-specialty clinic offering outpatient primary care, mental health, cardiology, some surgeries and other services, so veterans in that part of Maine won’t have to travel to Togus for those services.

Laweryson said he has some concerns about the Portland expansion if it draws services away from Togus.

“I understand why. It’ll make a teaching unit tie-in with Maine Medical Center, and that’s a good thing, as long as it doesn’t detract from Togus,” Laweryson said. “It’s going to be (a) bigger unit than in Lewiston and Bangor. We’ll watch it closely to make sure it doesn’t detract from Togus.”

Lilly said Togus has been fortunate in being able to find qualified professionals for the new positions, though positions in some specialties, such as dermatology, have been hard to fill because of a lack of people in those fields here. He said the VA still is hiring but is starting to reach the number of employees it has the funds to hire. He does not anticipate hiring another 110 new employees in the coming year, as was the case this past year.

Meanwhile, a new networking group, Putting Maine Veterans First, is in the process of forming with a goal of better sharing information about veterans’ benefits and how to access them with veterans across the state, according to Julie Carie, acting director of the Togus Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration.

The group formed as part of the national effort to establish “MyVA” community groups open to veterans, stakeholders, advocates and anyone involved in existing, community-based efforts to help veterans.

Carie said the goal is to create networks to help veterans understand what benefits they are eligible for and how to get access to those benefits.

“They’ll come together with other groups and share information and enhance the veterans’ experience,” said Denise Benson, staff assistant in the Togus Regional Office. “They’ll help cut through the red tape so services are more readily available.”

Veterans and others interested in participating in the Putting Maine Veterans First networking group may contact Peter Ogden at [email protected] The group has met once so far. Participants include representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Maine Veterans Services, the Maine Military and Community Network, the Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Easter Seals, Volunteers of America, Team Red White and Blue, the American Red Cross, the Wounded Heroes Program, the Travis Mills Foundation and Veterans Inc.

“It’s an effort to take all the stakeholders and get them together in one place to leverage everybody’s efforts and make sure we’re not duplicating efforts,” said Chris Burke, change management agent for the Togus Regional Office. “The state, nonprofits, the VA … we’ll all be getting together and making sure everyone knows what benefits we provide. In the end it will give a much better level of customer service to veterans.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj