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VA Secretary in Maine Marks System's 150th Year at Nation's Oldest Veterans' Hospital

Veterans Affairs is celebrating its 150th anniversary with ceremonies at the oldest VA hospital in the nation — Togus VA center in Augusta, which was chosen by President Abraham Lincoln as the site for a home for veterans in Sept. 1866.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln laid out what VA Secretary Bob McDonald calls the covenant between the people of the United States and its veterans. It’s the part where Lincoln says we have to care for he who has borne the battle, his widow and orphan.

An army veteran, McDonald says he thinks of that as he works to improve the quality of care for veterans. He says the backlog in getting care to vets has improved.

“We’re making progress, but I wouldn’t tell you we are where we need to be. We still have work to do,” he says.

McDonald, the former president of Procter & Gamble and a graduate of West Point, says since he took the job two years ago there have been more facilities built and expanded and more medical providers hired, including 1,200 more doctors. He says it takes less time for a veteran to see a provider for the first time, but hopes that increased computerization of VA scheduling will improve that measure.

And he says the initiative to address homelessness among veterans is making progress. Last year, he says, the number was down by 17 percent.

“We’re planning to keep this work up, and we are not going to stop until there are no homeless veterans, until every veteran has access, until every veteran’s claim gets dealt with,” he says.

And McDonald acknowledged more needs to be done to reduce the backlog of some 550,000 appeals for disability benefits. He supports legislation introduced earlier this week by independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine to modernize the process.

“The problem is the law that pertains to these appeals is 80 years old. It was written a long time ago,” he says.

McDonald says the VA has worked with members of Congress from both parties as well as the various veterans service organizations to come up with new appeals procedures that he believes will significantly reduce the backlog. But Congress has to pass the legislation, and that could be difficult in an election year.

McDonald says Congress must pass a budget that funds new initiatives to address veterans issues, such as suicides.

“A model we have developed, which actually allows us to predict with some certainty which veterans are at risk of taking their own lives. So we have put new programs around that, but we can’t execute them without a budget,” he says.

And McDonald fears that instead of a full budget, Congress will simply pass another continuing resolution.

Togus plans a series of events this weekend to mark the 150th anniversary celebration.

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Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.