LEWISTON — Calling it “a big win for the state of Maine,” U.S. Rep. Jared Golden joined other members of Maine’s congressional delegation in hailing Thursday’s announcement that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has approved a new 24-bed program at its Togus VA Medical Center for veterans who need help with substance abuse and mental health.

Construction is slated to begin next year and patients are expected in 2022.

“Maine veterans, particularly those with the unseen wounds of war, deserve to receive care here in our state,” the delegation said in a joint statement released Thursday.

“For years, veterans who needed treatment for substance use disorder and associated mental health issues for more than one night have been sent to other states, far from their family, friends, and support system,” U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Golden said.

“We’ve been working with the VA to right this wrong and we are very pleased” to have secured the federal agency’s endorsement of the project, the four lawmakers said.

Golden, who has been pushing for inpatient treatment at Togus since his election to the Maine State House in 2014, said he “wanted to change things in Maine about how veterans get taken care of.”

It’s been a frustrating journey at times, the Lewiston resident said, comparing it to an unskilled golfer sending balls into the woods or the water until he wants to break his clubs and throw his bag away. But, then, just when it’s needed, he manages “to hit a nice drive right down the middle” of the fairway, Golden said, and it feels good again.

For years, Golden, whose parents own a golf course in Leeds, said he has heard from veterans who have had to travel to VA facilities in Massachusetts, Connecticut and beyond to get treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues.

That left them disconnected from family, he said, and far from their support systems.

Having something in Togus, which is in Chelsea south of Augusta, instead will make a huge difference for many Maine veterans who need some help, he said.

Golden said the VA’s announcement would not have happened without strong support from the rest of Maine’s delegation. All four legislators pressed the issue, he said, and maintained a unified front that helped sway decision-makers.

He said he fought for two years in Washington “to grow the pie” so that cash might be available.

Golden managed to convince colleagues to put more money into the VA’s budget for residential rehabilitation facilities, including a $20 million hike in this year’s House bill, which the Senate has not yet approved.

He said congressional rules prohibit earmarking the money for a specific project but he hoped that with more cash, the VA would find the money to create the unit at Togus that he has long sought.

Golden said, though, that many rural states have similar issues, so without the strong support of Collins, King and Pingree, it’s not clear that Togus would be among the chosen projects.

“I’m awful happy for the state and for veterans,” he said.


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