Gov. Baldacci attended the opening of the Maine Veterans’ Home in Machias in 2005. As a Congressman he fought for the establishment of the homes throughout Maine. Now he wants those sites to become one-stop-veteran’s healthcenters/homes, serving all veterans needs. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Summer 2008

By Ramona du Houx

Ask a large number of service personnel who have been injured in the line of duty about the efficiency of care once they are home, and all to often they have tragic stories to tell, of waiting for treatment, being transferred to one federal agency after another, being confused about what medical plan to use, or having to travel long distances to get the care they need. Once the health care is received, most would agree the state has professional healthcare givers who do excellent jobs but, according to Governor John Baldacci, getting that care is a fight veterans shouldn’t have to wage.

“Veterans’ Homes and the Veterans campus that we are developing are very important to me,” said Governor Baldacci. “I’ve always felt that our service people have to battle overseas; they shouldn’t have to battle with all the paperwork at home to get the benefits, medical attention, and information that they were promised. People know why the cynicism in government is there; it’s because we don’t honor the commitment to those who put themselves in harm’s way.”

The governor’s dedication to veterans has led to the creation of a complex in Bangor that will supply ample housing for veterans and their families, state-of-the-art medical treatment, and advice to veterans. The center will streamline healthcare services for veterans, relieving the unnecessary bureaucratic stress, easing the recovery stage, and giving veterans facilities they can call home.

“Several things came into play: first the veterans’ health center needed to be relocated to serve the growing needs and numbers of veterans. A hospice was in demand. Then in order to have affordable housing and housing for family members to be close to their loved ones, like a Ronald McDonald house for veterans, we needed the real estate,” said the governor. “All these things came together and a wonderful opportunity presented itself through the Veterans’ Homes, to create this campus model in Bangor. We will have VA Togas services, housing, places for family members to stay, and hospice facilities all in one campus, making it easier for our veterans and families to get the services they need. It’s a one-stop shop for veterans.”

It sounds simple but many factors had to happen sequentially and with commitment by all the players involved, as well as the community, so that all the pieces of the puzzle would come together. Land and buildings on the campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center needed to be transferred for development of the multipurpose veterans’ center. Saxl Park, off Mount Hope Avenue behind the Bangor Mental Health Institute (BMHI) complex, was part of that land.

“I served on the Bangor City Council and the state Senate, I lived and was born in Bangor, and I knew a lot of the players involved in the initiative. Initially they wanted to do this all in one fell swoop. I knew that unless they involved the Saxl Commission, Mike Saxl and his family, the people at BMHI, and the neighborhood, it could get complicated. If you step on peoples toes it never works, if you bring them along and make them part of the process, it makes an opportunity to have many winners,” said Baldacci. “The most important thing was to make sure our veterans, and their families, were first and foremost. That was the driving force to get this done. So I had Lance Boucher of our office, who did a terrific job, and John La Rochoue, council for Maine Veterans’ Homes, conduct a stakeholder process. I wanted this in the worst way, but at the same time I knew we wouldn’t get it if we went about it in the wrong way.”

A year ago last May the governor created a planning committee through an Executive Order to develop the recommendations for moving forward with the goal of creating an integrated veterans’ campus. That’s how all the stakeholders came to the table, and with relative ease legislation was drafted to transfer the land. The law was passed by the 123rd Legislature with a large margin, and the land was transferred. Saxl Park. Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Maine Veterans’ Housing Coalition, BMHI, Congressman Mike Michaud’s office, Maine Veterans’ Homes, as well as other committee members, all played key roles.

“Convenience, easy access, efficiency, and a high quality health care is what the Bangor Veterans’ one-stop-shop center will offer. The organization to do this comes from Maine Veterans’ Homes and the work we were doing with the Veterans’ Housing Coalition. There hasn’t been enough affordable housing for veterans; at the same time we had vacant buildings on the BMHI campus. So we worked to get the real estate transferred to the Veterans’ Housing Coalition which gives veterans affordable places to live,” said the governor. “Too many veterans are homeless; this new center should help turn the tide, in Maine.”

Maine Veterans’ Homes is a public, not-for-profit organization created by the 108th Maine Legislature in 1977. The first home opened in 1983, in Augusta. Since then, MVH facilities have been established in Caribou, Scarborough, South Paris, Bangor, and Machias. Throughout his career as a public servant, the governor has been defending veterans; as a congressman he worked to create Veterans’ Homes.

“I’m very proud of our Veterans’ Homes. I helped establish the one in Bangor, the one Downeast, and the one in South Paris,” said Baldacci. “I was in the Legislature when we kicked off the one in Caribou and in Scarborough.”

Governor Baldacci also was the first Maine governor to recognize the sacrifice of Maine’s Veterans to their country with official state medals. The Silver Star Medal was first awarded to Maine veterans in August of 2006, and is presented to those who have been wounded while serving their country. Since its inception 123 medals have been presented. The state also has presented 36 Gold Star Honorable Service medals to family members of those killed while serving overseas.

According to the Veterans Administration, 154,600 veterans reside in Maine. This figure does not count military retirees, active duty, Guard and reserve which would bring the total number of veterans living in Maine to over 180,000. In a state of 1.3 million people, that’s about seven percent of Maine’s population. Maine has the second highest rate of resident veterans in the nation. All these elements have increased the need for healthcare facilities for veterans and the logical place to accommodate these service personal would be where they are housed — at the six Maine State Veteran’s Homes.

The Maine Veterans’ Homes operates 640 beds across the state. With more veterans returning home from the Iraq war and with veterans aging, it’s projected that Maine will need more facilities for veterans’ care, which makes the creation of the first “one-stop shop” for veterans timely.

“This campus is going to build upon the features at the facility that is there now. Long-term skilled nursing care, residential care, and the information and programs administered by the state’s Bureau of Maine Veterans’ Services would all be available. We are going to be adding a new hospice facility, an outpatient clinic, and new independent housing to the existing facility. All this will be paid for by different Federal elements, without state funds,” said the governor. “This campus design was done not just for the Bangor facility, but it was one that can be used as a model at every place that we have a Veteran’s Home facility. That’s the goal.”

Soon, a veteran will be able to go to the Bangor one-stop shop for medical needs and expect to receive answers to all their questions, not have to worry about which insurance plan to use or if their family can be with them, find a home if they need one, and receive high quality health care. The need for a truly integrated veterans’ services facility has been ever growing; the governor is making it happen.

Using this new Bangor facility as a model template for the other Maine State Veterans’ Homes will ease the burden on veterans statewide, finally giving them the respect they deserve.

“Maine veterans and their families deserve the highest quality health care, housing, and other benefits. They’ve served our country, giving selflessly of themselves, and it’s our responsibility as a nation to make sure they are taken care of when they come home. This project will incorporate the needs of Maine veterans now and into the future, providing access to comprehensive services,” said Governor Baldacci.