2014 Gubernatorial Campaign

Veterans’ health care scandal threatens to derail Michaud’s campaign

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U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat, looks at former U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki while touring the Togus VA Healthcare facility in Augusta.

In a preliminary report released Wednesday, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said delays of veterans’ medical care are “systemic throughout” the VA’s Phoenix Health Care System and perhaps at other facilities.

“Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system and have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA,” the report states.

The IG’s report comes weeks after a news investigation found evidence that senior VA health officials were manipulating wait-list tracking systems in order to secure performance-based bonuses, which are 50 percent dependent on how efficiently such wait-lists are processed. In practice, the scheme meant appointment delays that have allegedly contributed to the deaths of more than 40 veterans and unnecessarily prolonged care for unknown thousands.

In other words, government employees were using illegal means to protect their bonuses and military veterans died as a result.

According to the IG probe, 1,700 veterans who sought care at the Phoenix hospital were not on an official list awaiting appointments, even though their conditions require medical attention. The report also says 1,138 veterans in Phoenix have waited more than six months for an appointment with a primary care physician.

In addition to the waitlist schemes, which have jeopardized the lives of veterans, the IG report also mentions allegations of mismanagement, sexual harassment, inappropriate hiring decisions and bullying, which suggests a systemic cultural problem within the government agency.

Secretary of U.S. Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki called the findings of the Inspector General’s report “reprehensible” in an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, and, on Friday, amid growing pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, he resigned.

Another element of the VA affair broke Thursday, when reports surfaced regarding activities of the VA’s taxpayer-funded union representatives.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid more than $11 million to 174 nurses, mental-health specialists, therapists and other health-care professionals who were not caring for veterans, but were instead working full-time for a labor union. According to NationalReview.com, the list of taxpayer-funded union staff working at VA offices was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

From any perspective, the VA scandal is expected to get worse before it gets better, and that has huge implications for Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.

The Michaud Connection

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Michaud’s VA Committee discusses President Obama’s VA budget in April of 2013

Despite being named multiple times to RollCall.com’s list of “obscure” members of Congress, Michaud has been able to develop a reputation for work on veterans issues. However, in the wake of the VA catastrophe, precisely what was regarded as his greatest strength has now become a serious vulnerability.

Michaud, to a greater extent than any other elected official in the last decade, has been in a position of oversight and influence with regard to the VA health system. As a Ranking Member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and as Chairman and Ranking Member on the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, Michaud has been uniquely positioned to ensure that the VA system is meeting veterans’ needs.

Although Michaud was reluctant to take a stand on Shinseki, his office said late Thursday night that he would like him to resign. The unusual late-night announcement could have come after Michaud was made aware that Shinseki’s pending resignation was a done deal — making the call a zero-risk decision.

Michaud, perhaps aware of the controversy’s impact on his campaign, has sought to inoculate himself against criticism.

In the wake of the scandal, the Democrat delivered a speech on the House floor to show his concern and held a campaign press conference at a V.F.W. hall in Portland.

Following the lead of Republicans on the committee, Michaud joined an effort to subpoena top VA officials to testify before Congress. But, as far as substantive policy change is concerned, Michaud called on President Barack Obama to use executive authority to go around the legislative body of which he is part.

“We do mean business,” said Michaud. Regarding the reforms he wants to see Obama enact on his behalf, Michaud said, “It would be transparency more than what it is today, but most importantly, it sets up performance measures within the department system wide.”

No reporter present asked why Michaud had not previously taken these steps, despite being aware of problems within the VA system for more than a year.

Nor did anyone ask if these measures would even be effective, considering the issue at hand is that transparency protocols and performance measures were intentionally exploited.

Michaud’s opponents – incumbent Republican gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler – have been quick to tie Michaud’s singular work on veterans’ issues to the current controversy.

In a Friday statement, LePage said the new revelations were “stunning,” considering Congress has received 18 reports from the VA Office of Inspector General since 2005 “exposing long-term gross mismanagement of health care for our nation’s veterans.”

“Congressman Mike Michaud has been in Washington for six terms and is the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee,” said LePage. “For years Michaud has told the people of Maine he has inside knowledge on what happens at the VA, but he took little to no action about this scandal until an election year.” 

“We now find out that he should have known about these deficiencies for nine years,” he said. “It is unconscionable that Mike Michaud waited until an election year before he finally took some action.”

Some GOP state lawmakers, veterans themselves, also took shots at Michaud for his role in the VA meltdown.

“Mike Michaud has let down Maine veterans with the lack of oversight that has happened on his watch,” said Rep. Ray Wallace (R- Dexter), a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army. “It’s time for him to get back on the job and make sure our veterans have the care they deserve.”

“Michaud’s failed oversight of the VA and blind support of the Obama Administration is symbolic of his time in Congress, where he has dutifully towed the party line without taking any real responsibility,” said Rep. Jarrod Crockett (R-Bethel), a former Army infantry officer who earned a Bronze Star during an 18-month tour in Afghanistan. “This time, however, he’s let down the people who rely on him the most: Maine veterans.”

Cutler, who came within one-percentage point of winning the 2010 gubernatorial election, was even more direct.

“He’s known about this stuff since 2005. He’s had hearings. He had testimony from the [Office of the Inspector General] and from the VA itself on all of these problems,” Cutler said, adding that Michaud’s response has been “highly political.”

“I think he owes Maine veterans, and voters, an answer to three questions,” said Cutler.

“First, is he proud of his leadership in congress on this issue for the last 12 years? Almost a decade since he first learned about the scheduling problems,” he said.

“Second, after his hearings uncovered these problems nearly a decade ago, what has he accomplished to fix the problem,” he said.

“Third, does he think that he bears any responsibility for this. And if so, what should he do? What is the honorable thing for him to do?,” he said.

Cutler said Michaud’s role in the VA scandal is a “story about the failure of leadership and ineffectiveness.”

“Leadership and effectiveness is what the job he’s running for is all about,” he said. “People are asking: Where was Mike?”

Maine’s major newspapers have so far been reluctant to ask hard questions about what Michaud knew and when. But the 18 IG reports Michaud would have received, starting in 2005, and various press releases from the last few years raise questions about what actions he took once be became aware of the delays.

Press releases from recent years show that Michaud has been well-aware of delays and other issues within the VA system.

On March 20, 2013, Michaud responded to a committee hearing regarding the backlog of pending claims.

“[T]here is no question that VA must do better, and the numbers don’t add up for VA to get there by 2015,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “I will do everything I can to help the VA meet its ambitious goals. Congress and the VA must work together to fix this problem, but time is running out and we simply must see real results soon.”

In October of last year, Michaud admitted that the backlog problem impacts Maine’s veterans, but stated that “progress is being made.”

“VA’s backlog of claims impacts veterans in Maine and all across our country, and there is no easy quick fix. While progress is being made, this legislation provides the VA with the additional tools it needs to help reach its goal of ending the backlog by 2015. I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their bipartisan efforts to create smart, pragmatic solutions,” he said.

Among the provisions sought by the package of legislation passed last year are the following ambiguous items:

  • paying veterans more quickly by paying as their individual conditions are adjudicated
  • providing veterans with information that may lead to quicker routes to the successful adjudication of their claim
  • strengthening accountability by requiring VA to regularly track and provide information to the public on claims processing and the performance of VA regional offices
  • taking steps to help ensure the VA has the needed information from other agencies to accurately process claims in a timely way
  • encouraging VA to expand the use of automation in processing veterans claims speeding up claims by allowing veterans’ medical examinations to be done by physicians outside the VA system and encouraging veterans to file fully developed claims

The unifying theme of each of these objectives is a reliance on the integrity of VA officials administering health care. In other words, the Michaud-sponsored fix is premised on the notion that VA officials simply did not have the tools and resources they needed to process claims efficiently. However, the big takeaway from the current scandal is that high-level federal employees deliberately gamed the system in order to protect their bonuses.

None of the legislation Michaud sponsored before the scandal made headlines called for an investigation into the problem. Not one of the bills addressed the perverse incentive scheme that led administrators to defraud the system.

Matt Gagnon, a Maine columnist who works with the Republican Governors Association, said in a recent Facebook post that Michaud should not be spared criticism.

“Just to remind you all about who Mike Michaud is, this is the same man who has been a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee his entire time in Congress, and has served as both Chairman and Ranking Member of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health,” said Gagnon. “The very committees who have direct oversight over the VA.”

“And he has been so unbelievably ineffective, and so incredibly invisible for more than a decade, that we are left with the mess we see today,” he said.

“Weak sauce.”

Steve Robinson
Editor, The Maine Wire

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson was the editor of The Maine Wire from 2013 through 2014. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College, and is currently a Producer for The Howie Carr Show in Boston.

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