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As Obama Vows to Fix VA Problems, Maine Veterans' Facility in Spotlight

The national outrage over veterans' health care services took center stage in Washington today, where President Barack Obama told reporters that the allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals will be not be tolerated by his administration. The president made his remarks ahead of a Capitol Hill debate on a bill that would make it easier to fire or demote senior VA hospital executives. Maine's 2nd District Congressman Michael Michaud, the lead Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, supports the measure, and says it will fundamentally address systematic failures throughout the VA.

Amid mounting pressure to investigate reported treatment delays and unnecessary deaths at the nation's VA hospitals, President Obama promised a full accounting of the failures. Twenty-six hospitals are currently under federal scrutiny, including the Phoenix VA Health Care System where 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, the president said alleged acts of mistreatment of veterans in Arizona was unacceptable.

"When I hear allegations of misconduct - any misconduct, whether it's allegations of any VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it, not as commander-in-chief, but also not as an American," Obama said.

The president's remarks were received coolly by some of the administration's critics who are openly calling for the dismissal of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. But others on Capitol Hill, including Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree, say the president sent the right message.

"I was very glad to hear the president say that there's going to be an investigation to see how widespread the problem is; to see who's responsible," the 1st District U.S. House representative says. "I mean it's critically important that the VA does a full and thorough audit. It's outrageous. In mean, (a) these wait times have been outrageous forever. And the fact that people are dying while they wait, or suffering more serious problems because they're not getting the care that they need - it's just unthinkable."

Maine ranks among the top five states for the concentration of veterans as a percentage of the general population, and is home to the Togus VA Hospital. As the House took up debate on the VA Mnagement Accountability Act, 2nd District Congressman Michael Michaud, the lead Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, spoke in favor.

"I'm supporting moving this bill forward today because I believe we need to begin this discussion as to how to best ensure VA employees are held accountable when they fail to perform," Michaud said. "But let me be clear: We can, and we must, do more to ensure that our veterans get the quality services that they deserve and have earned."

But that's not happening right now, according to an investigative report conducted by the Dayton Daily News in Ohio and WSB-TV in Atlanta. Reporters compiled a database of paid claims by the VA since 2001 and culled out 167 in which the words "delay in treatment" was used in the description of the fatal event.

The two news organizations reported that the VA paid out more than $36 million to settle those claims, either voluntarily or as part of a court action. The investigation also reported seven settlements totaling nearly $1.3 million at Togus VA Hospital involving Maine patients, but not as the result of a delay in treatment. Instead, most of the alleged fatal errors were attributed to "failure to treat" or "misdiagnosis."

"The VA is saying something went wrong and therefore we're making this payment," says Josh Sweigart, a reporter on the Dayton Daily News investigative team. Sweigart says the Togus settlements reflect a problem at the Maine facility. "In the big scheme of things, I don't know that it's any worse to die of delay of care versus delay of diagnosis."

Ryan Lilly, who has served as the director of Togus for the last two years, says the facility is committed to constantly evaluating its operations, and that, by and large, the VA Maine Health Care System provides outstanding quality health care to more than 40,000 veterans each year.

"That said, anytime there's a mistake made in the system, it doesn't matter if it was today or some of these cases that were more than 10 years ago," Lilly says. "We want to look at that and we want to learn from those things and prevent those. Even a single case that we acted inappropriately is one too many."

Congressman Mike Michaud says that, while things aren't perfect at Togus, the hospital has made great strides forward over the last decade and generally receives high marks from Maine's veterans.

"There's not a weekend that I'm back in Maine that I don't run into a veteran that talks about Togus and health care," Michaud says. "But it's all been very complimentary."

Dayton Daily News reporter Josh Sweigart says that, given the 20 million veterans served by the VA hospital system, the number of settlements were not out of line with those targeting the system's private hospital counterparts.