PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, is urging President Barack Obama to use his executive privilege to implement Michaud’s proposed Veterans Affairs reforms in response to an ongoing scandal over severe delays in veterans’ medical treatment.
Michaud is the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and seeks to respond swiftly to the controversy before it emerges as a campaign issue in his run for the Blaine House, where he faces a heated three-way race against incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.
The scandal erupted last month when cable news network CNN released an investigation into the alleged cover-up of lengthy waiting lists at the Phoenix, Arizona, VA facility, where more than 40 veterans reportedly died while waiting for care.
On Friday, speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Deering Memorial Post 6859 in Portland, Michaud urged Obama to bypass Congress and issue executive orders to implement the reforms the congressman previously proposed in a bill, H.R. 4399.
“The president has expressed his outrage at the ongoing situation within the VA, and this is one opportunity for him to use his authority to put badly needed course corrections in place,” said Michaud. “All of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, share the goal of ensuring our brave veterans receive the quality treatment they deserve. We must not waste a single second in implementing reforms that can address these problems and prevent them from recurring.”
Michaud’s opponents in the gubernatorial race were quick to associate the congressman with an administration they described as out of touch with the VA problems.
“I agree with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said this morning that we have ‘no higher responsibility’ than to provide quality medical care to the men and women who have served our country in uniform,” said Cutler in a statement Friday. “The real tragedy here is that poor service and long waiting times have been an issue for veterans for years — President Obama raised the issue when he first ran in 2008.
“It’s hard to understand why it has taken so long for those in the administration and Congress whose job it is to provide oversight of the VA to address the problem,” he continued. “Career politicians are no substitute for competent management, and unfortunately our veterans are paying the price.”
In a statement released Friday, LePage said Obama and Michaud are both already too late in responding to the VA crisis.
“The VA has systemic problems, which are severely entrenched within bureaucracy and there has been an absolute failure of accountability,” the governor said. “The failed leadership of the Obama administration demonstrates a complete lack of compassion and care for our veterans who have given so much to our great nation.”
“Congressman Mike Michaud, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has had six long years to fix problems within the VA and demand change,” he continued. “Instead, during an election year, just last month, he decides to propose reform — too little, too late. Where was the call to action when veterans were being turned away and, even worse, when they died?”
Michaud suggested on Friday the severity of the VA problems only became fully clear to his committee last month, because facilities were doctoring records to cover up their failures and department administrators were not forthcoming in previous appearances before Congress.
Michaud said his bill would implement systemwide performance evaluation checkpoints and make it easier for VA administrators and supervisors to be terminated if those evaluation criteria are not met. The bill would also expand the scrutiny to apply to so-called Title 38 employees — VA medical staff including doctors, nurses and dentists — unlike a reform bill already proposed by Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, Michaud said.
Michaud noted that his committee learned of one case in which a VA physician was given a performance award even after letting his medical license expire, an oversight Michaud said his proposal would prevent.
Michaud has voted twice with the committee in recent weeks to issue subpoenas to the Veterans Affairs administration, first to force the agency to turn over documentation surrounding the scandal and second — on Thursday — to legally compel three top VA officials to testify before the panel next week.
Amy Meuchel, a former Navy sailor and current chaplain for VFW Post 6859, said after Michaud’s speech Friday she is satisfied with his response to the crisis.
“I’m glad to see someone who cares about veterans and wants to see this resolved,” she told the Bangor Daily News. “Veterans should get what they deserve.”
During his address in Portland, Michaud accused the VA leaders of “dragging their feet” in providing committee members the information they want, and said the subpoenas were necessary to show them “we mean business.”
He called the reported activity at the Phoenix VA, as well as similar problems that have emerged in other regions, “uncalled for, unjust and inexcusable.”
Michaud said that Maine’s Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta has remained above the fray.
“I’m pleased to point out that we haven’t heard of any problems with Togus here in Maine,” he said. “Our veterans deserve nothing but the best.”