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New legislation from Golden would stamp out debate over VA closures, including those in Maine

The Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine.
Veterans Health
via Flickr
The Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommended a sweeping overhaul of its hospitals and clinics, including some in Maine.

Now one member of Maine's congressional delegation wants to close the debate before it starts.

The VA proposed closing community outpatient clinics in Fort Kent, Houlton and Rumford, and it suggested several changes for the VA Togus Medical Center in Augusta, the nation's first veterans hospital.

Togus would become an urgent care center, moving emergency room, inpatient medical and nursing home services to Portland and other sites in Maine through public-private partnerships.

There were no recommendations to close community-based outpatient clinics in Bangor, Lincoln, Calais or Presque Isle.

Any potential changes are likely years away. An independent commission of veterans experts must review the VA proposals and submit its own recommendations to the president. Congress would then have to approve them.

But under proposed legislation from Rep. Jared Golden, that commission would be eliminated, effectively ending a national debate over veterans' facilities across the country, and in Maine.

The VA has said the changes would streamline operations and allow doctors to deliver care in regional hubs with the greatest number of veterans in Maine. But Golden disagrees.

"Closing these facilities would put health care further out of reach for Maine veterans, forcing them to drive even further than they already do for VA care," Golden said in a statement announcing the bill, which he introduced Tuesday with Rep. David McKinley, R-WV.

Togus officials have previously said there is flexibility built into the recommendations, and that the hospital wouldn't experience any major changes unless it had it struck up an agreement to share space and resources with a private sector health organization.

The VA has said the veteran population in Maine is expected to dip over the next seven years. But Golden said too much focus is on the future, and he worries it'll become more difficult for Vietnam-era veterans to receive care when they need it the most.

"It just feels like they're trying to move too quickly looking to the future," he said.

In a statement, the Maine American Legion says it supports the goal of streamlining the VA but believes the congressional commission process is the wrong way to do it.

"We can’t support a process that will lead to closures of VA facilities in many of the rural communities where Maine veterans need them the most and limit the services our veterans can get close to home," the Maine Legion said.

Golden's legislation is a companion to a similar bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year.

Updated: July 13, 2022 at 11:29 AM EDT
This post adds additional comments from Rep. Jared Golden.