CARIBOU, Maine — Aroostook County veterans and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation are fighting to save a federal program that they say has benefited rural veterans, but whose funding is scheduled to lapse later this year.
The Access Received Closer to Home program has been operating at Cary Medical Center since 2011, when it was one of five facilities in the country selected as a program test site.
The program since has served about 1,600 local veterans through more than 17,000 medical appointments, according to data provided by the Caribou hospital this week.
The other four ARCH sites are in Farmville, Virginia; Pratt, Kansas; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Billings, Montana.
Under the program, veterans are eligible to participate if, among other criteria, they reside more than 60 minutes drive time from the nearest Veterans Administration health care facility providing primary care services or more than 120 minutes drive time from the nearest VA facility providing acute hospital care.
In 2008, then U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud helped pass the legislation that created the program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and was championed by Michaud as a way to provide Aroostook County veterans access to health care closer to home.
Funding for the program is scheduled to lapse in August, according to the offices of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin. In a letter sent earlier this month, all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation urged Robert McDonald, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to continue the ARCH program.
In the letter to McDonald, the delegation members said that the subject of the ARCH program came up as part of a larger roundtable discussion about the $10 billion Veterans Choice Program, which was passed by Congress after a national 2014 scandal over VA wait times.
Veterans qualify for that program — which allows them to be treated by private doctors — if they live 40 miles or more from a Disabled American Veterans facility or if they have waited 30 days for care, are getting services not offered by the VA or require frequent appointments.
According to VA statistics, only 48 percent of eligible Choice Program patients in Maine had received the appointments they needed and had requested, something that the delegation told McDonald was “entirely unacceptable” and needed to be addressed.
“The ARCH program has been a critical resource for veterans in Aroostook County, helping them access the timely and quality health care services they deserve,” they said in the statement. “Allowing the program to lapse, especially given the current difficulties with the Choice Program, would be a mistake. That is why we are committed to preserving ARCH moving forward. The program has made an invaluable difference in the lives of veterans, and we will continue to work to extend its statutory authority to ensure that veterans receive the highest-quality care in a timely manner.”
The delegates added that the persistent problems with the Choice Program “only reinforced the value of the ARCH program in ensuring our veterans in rural areas receive the high quality and timely care they deserve.”
John DeVeau of Caribou, an ARCH program user and president of United Veterans of Maine, said Saturday that the program was making it “a lot easier” for him and other veterans to receive health care.
“You have a program that is working well for rural veterans,” he said. “This is going really well in Caribou, especially, and we are going to fight to keep it.”
DeVeau said that veterans across Aroostook County are mobilizing to have their voices heard in an effort to preserve the ARCH program and to speak out for better care under the Choice Program.
To that end, they have formed the Aroostook County Veterans Advocacy Committee and will be meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in the Chan Center at Cary Medical Center. The panel consists of veterans from all branches of the military, as well as representatives from veterans groups, the state’s congressional delegation and local hospitals.
Denis Madore, a service officer with the Disabled American Veterans in Presque Isle, has received treatment through the ARCH program for more than two years and is a member of the advisory committee. He credited the program with saving his life, saying that it was “a very well organized, straightforward program” that he was grateful for.
DeVeau said the advisory committee had already gotten to work.
“We want to make sure our voices are heard on this issue,” said DeVeau. “We are not going to give up on this.”