CARIBOU, Maine — Veterans and supporters from around the region gathered at Cary Medical Center Tuesday to share their concerns and push for renewal of a model rural health program that is set to expire in early August.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin assured the veterans that they would be taken care of no matter what happens to the popular Access Received Closer to Home or ARCH program. Shulkin, who was invited to Caribou by members of Maine’s congressional delegation, toured the facility with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin to learn more about the program, which was established in Caribou in 2011 as one of five pilot sites around the country.
The veterans and members of Maine’s congressional delegation touted the importance and benefits of the program, which they said has proven highly successful and cost-effective for veterans in Aroostook County, providing the health care they need closer to home and saving them a potentially 600-mile round trip to the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.
Collins and fellow U.S. Sen. Angus King have introduced legislation that would keep ARCH running through 2021, while Poliquin and fellow Rep. Chellie Pingree submitted a companion bill in the House.
Still, Collins said she separately was trying to get the VA to administratively authorize continuation of the program permanently.
“My hope is that we can work out an administrative solution through the VA that would void the need for legislation,” Collins said Tuesday. “I have been able to get a two-year extension funded in the military construction and VA appropriations bill which will be on the Senate floor next week. In committee, there was no objection to it, but that’s a long way from becoming law.”
Collins said she would continue to pursue both avenues, but because of all the uncertainties with passing legislation, “I believe we may be able to solve this through the Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] using his waiver authority. My top priority is to prevent [the program] from expiring in August, because then veterans will have to travel to Togus for speciality care. They could still get primary care at the community-based clinic that is here in Caribou, they could still get long-term care at the veterans home attached to the hospital. But they would have to go to Togus for specialty care, and that’s just too difficult for many of them.”
Poliquin also stated in a press release issued after the gathering that Shulkin and other VA officials had indicated they were working to extend the ARCH program services without the need for legislation.
A crowd of nearly 100 veterans and supporters gathered to hear Shulkin speak at the medical center and to voice their concerns regarding veteran health care.
Veteran Ken Powers spoke of his difficulties with the Veterans Choice Program, a controversial alternative to the ARCH program.
“I have been trying to get approval for a spinal injection for over a month and a half through Choice,” said Powers. “I have called diligently, and was told to cancel two appointments because I didn’t have approval. I got a phone call last week, saying I was scheduled for a follow-up appointment. I said, ‘A follow-up appointment for what?’ and they told me it was for the spinal injection I had. I had to explain that they told me to cancel that because I was still waiting for approval. Now, I’m going on two months.”
Shulkin told Powers that this was “unacceptable,” directed him to a member of Health Net in the audience who would assist him, and assured the veteran that the situation would be resolved within the day.
Jim Gehring, adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans Smart-Ricker No. 10 in Presque Isle, praised the ARCH program and applauded the VA’s efforts to help veterans.
“First of all, I have no complaints,” Gehring said. “Secondly, I want to thank you for coming up here to hear what we have to say. I know, collectively, the issue is to get ARCH approved and do something down the road that will put a permanent program in place. It’s easy for us to criticize the VA because they’re like a big company, but what we don’t do is say thank you for what you do up here.”
The audience members, as well as the guests from Washington, D.C., erupted into applause at Gehring’s kind words.
“We talk about ourselves as a community working together,” continued Gehring, “but that extends downstate to Bangor and Togus, because if we didn’t do it together as a group and work together, nothing would get done. I have no complaints, and I don’t think the majority of people in this room have a complaint.”
Roger Felix, commander of the Lister-Knowlton VFW Post 9389 in Caribou, also complimented the VA’s efforts.
“You’ve got a tough job with these folks here,” said Felix. “I just want to say that, no matter what the program is, the fact that you’re putting veteran’s health at the forefront of today’s issues is greatly appreciated. Aroostook County is a very small place on the face of the United States and … we’re highly grateful to be making such an impact to bring the attention of people from Washington.”