Congressman Michaud is making a difference for Veterans: Togas may become center of excellence

From building cabins at Togus to hiring veterans and helping their claims, Michaud has helped

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

November 12th, 2013 

Congressman Michaud invited the Sec. of Veteran's Affairs, Ed Shinseki to Maine twice. And while the Sec. was here Michaud got changes made that will help Veterans. Congressman Michaud invited the Sec. of Veteran’s Affairs, Ed Shinseki to Maine twice. And while the Sec. was here Michaud got changes made that will help Veterans.

Congressman Mike Michaud is now serving as the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. On the committee, Michaud has been able to work successfully with Republicans, cutting through the current partisan climate in the nation’s capital.

Mike Michaud comforts a Vietnam Veteran who finally was recognized for his service. Photo By Ramona du Houx

Over the years, Michaud has been on the front lines of the fight in Congress to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at a level that begins to meet the needs of veterans. He helped pass historic legislation that provided the largest budget increases for the VA, expanded access to VA health care, improved health services for all veterans, and modernized benefits earned by servicemembers.

In addition, Michaud successfully passed provisions into law that led to increased access to healthcare services for rural Maine veterans. The state has new veterans’ care facilities and a mobile care unit because of the congressman. He also authored legislation creating a new program that provides support to veteran caregivers by offering them training and access to mental health counseling. Last year, Michaud worked to pass a bill improving long-term care for elderly and severely disabled veterans that are at state veterans’ homes.

Mike Michaud comforts a Vietnam Vet who finally was recognized for his service. Photo By Ramona du Houx

Michaud has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he led bipartisan congressional delegation visits to forward operating bases and medical facilities in order to examine in-theater medical care. He has also toured VA facilities across the country.

“Out of the number of issues my office deals with, veterans are the highest percentage. We deal with a whole range of issues from disability benefits to securing medals for veterans,” said Michaud.

The Maine State Housing Authority’s Point in Time Survey reported that there are about 1,200 homeless people in Maine — almost half are veterans. The House passed the Homes for Heroes Act, which Michaud co-sponsored. The bill is designed to help keep veterans and their families from falling into homelessness by working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“There are some veterans and their families living on the edge who we can help prevent from becoming homeless,” said Michaud. “We have to get federal agencies working more collaboratively on issues important to our veterans. We need to get that synergy going. To start, the Homes for Heroes Act establishes a position within HUD for a veterans affairs specialist.”

Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a federal goal to eliminate homelessness among veterans. The VA’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 included nearly $1.4 billion for programs designed to prevent or end homelessness among veterans. This represented a 33 percent increase, or $333 million, over the 2012 funding level. Some of that funding has come to Maine.

“There are opportunities happening in Maine to help our veterans. Part of the Kerry Act, which I was a sponsor of, had a provision requiring the VA to approve case management services for homeless veterans, and to expand the VA to enter into more contracts with the state government,” said Michaud.

Because Michaud had the Sec. of Veterans affairs visit Togas they are now building homeless cabins on the property with the program called

Shinseki came to Maine twice after Michaud invited him to the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.

“When Secretary Shinseki visited Togus, he approved the use of some of the Togus property to build cabins in the woods for homeless veterans,” said Michaud.

According to the Volunteers of America website, the Cabin in the Woods program will offer 21 privately situated cabins, on 11 acres, with a mix of one and two bedrooms to homeless veterans who, because of their diagnosis, are not currently connected to services but are willing to receive support and services.

“The whole idea of having the project on the Togus property is to get veterans to talk and work with other veterans, and they will have easy access to health care,” said Michaud. “Volunteers of America are responsible for raising the funds to build the cabins.”

Each cabin will have a fireplace and will be energy-efficient with handicap accessibility. Cabins with multiple rooms will give veterans who have families an opportunity to visit with them while receiving individualized treatment. There will also be a community center where veterans can go for recreation, support, and services.

“The project cost is $2 million — through donations to Volunteers of America,” said Michaud. “They’re grateful for any help.”

The President and the First Lady have focused on making sure veterans can find jobs in the USA when they return from war zones. As a direct result, American businesses have hired or trained 290,000 veterans and military spouses over the past two years and have committed to hiring 435,000 more by 2018. A case study from Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families in March 2012 said that the skills developed through military training make veterans vital workers in a business environment. A veteran’s loyalty, integrity, and experience working in national and global settings with diverse workforces remain unmatched by other employees.

“We need to reach the employment goals the President and First Lady have announced. The skill sets our veterans have in engineering and leadership are exceedingly transferable into the private sector. The more we can educate employers on how a veteran would be a good fit for them, then they will hire them,” said the congressman. “They are the most committed, disciplined, and dedicated individuals I’ve had the privilege to meet.”

According to a June 2010 National Center for Biotechnology Information study, “the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression for veterans range from 9 percent to 31 percent, depending on the level of functional impairment reported.” This represents slightly more than 1 percent of the total population of U.S. veterans. However, too many people still stigmatize veterans with PTSD.

“There has been a focus in Congress to help reintegrate members of our armed services back into the civilian workforce. But there is still a stigma surrounding them that is unhealthy,” said Michaud. “An issue that adds to a soldier’s stress when they come home is whether they have a job or not. If you can get an individual into a job quickly, that will help them get back into a normal lifestyle. Some of them have gone through traumatic times — for our country. We owe it them to stand with them.”

Michaud is the leading Rep. on the Veterans Committee in D.C.

Michaud is the leading Rep. on the Veterans Committee in D.C.

The lack of prompt processing of veteran’s medical claims prompted Shinseki to make a commitment to end the backlog by 2015.

“We need to address the unacceptably large backlog of claims in order to get veterans the benefits they’ve earned faster. Maine is doing better than other states are with the backlog, but we have to do more. The issue has gone on too long,” said Michaud. “It’s important to remember that it wasn’t until Secretary Shinseki came on board that they decided to get the veteran’s backlog computerized. That was a major step.”

But there are other issues that have to be worked out between organizations. While on active duty, servicemembers are under the control of the Department of Defense (DoD). Once they return home, they become veterans and are placed under the umbrella of the VA.

At the beginning of the summer, the number of veterans’ claims currently pending approval by the VA totaled almost 880,000. Of those claims, nearly 600,000 were a part of a backlog, which pertains to any claim that has been pending for more than 125 days.

“Part of the problem is when soldiers leave the DoD and go into the VA system, and that paper work takes too long to process. So the paperwork itself automatically creates a backlog,” said Michaud. “The President has directed the DoD and the VA to work together to streamline the process. Legislation our committee is pushing requires the DoD to get their systems electronically connected to the VA system, so requests are processed within 21 days.”

The veterans’ claims backlog is a complex issue, and Michaud has submitted several other pieces of legislation to alleviate the backlog. Recently, he took charge of an effort in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to develop a bipartisan legislative package designed to help reduce the claims backlog.

“We are taking up that omnibus proposal,” said Michaud.

A major bill of Michaud’s would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program to establish Claims Adjudication Centers of Excellence.

“Veterans are submitting a lot more complex claims than they were in previous wars,” said Michaud. “The number of mental conditions we treated for WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans was far less than we have now. The conditions have gone up dramatically from one to two during WWII to three or four in Vietnam. Today, a veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan has an average of 15 to 20 different medical conditions — per claim.”

Michaud’s pilot Center of Excellence would focus on the 10 most complex and time-consuming medical conditions.

Out of the 56 regional offices, 10 will be chosen as pilot programs and provided additional resources and personnel. These highest-performing offices would be used to adjudicate the most difficult medical conditions, such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and sexual assaults.

“I think Togus will be one of the pilot programs because they do such a good job. Some other regional offices have a terrible error rate of over 52 percent — on average — which means for many claims we have to start over,” said Michaud. “We will also make sure these offices have necessary staff on hand.”

Congressman Mike Michaud speaking in Washington, D.C to the news

The Centers would encourage the VA to specialize claims processing by condition, reduce the time it takes to adjudicate these conditions, and decrease the error rates on difficult claims.

“And when the entire system is all computerized and streamlined between the DoD and VA, some jobs will no longer be necessary. Because the Center of Excellence will focus on the complex cases — that will always be needed — Togus would be set up for the long term, beyond the computerized integration,” added Michaud.

Another backlog issue involves making sure veterans get payments due to them faster by providing partial payments as medical conditions are adjudicated. The VA says that they are giving partial payment to patients, but Michaud says that’s not always the case.

“Veteran claims processing needs to be more understanding of the needs of veterans. If an adjudicator has approved 19 of the 20 claims but is still waiting for the last one, which is more complex, to be approved, the veteran should not have to wait. They should be able to get partial payment for what has already been approved,” said Michaud.