U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud defended his congressional committee’s oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, but the Democratic candidate for governor faced continuing criticism from his opponents over veterans’ long waits for medical care.

Michaud has been a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for the past 12 years, and is now the ranking Democrat. He has a reputation for his attention to veterans’ issues, but in recent weeks has been criticized by his political opponents for not doing more to correct problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs that caused long waits for medical care. Up to 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix, according to recent news stories.

Michaud said Tuesday that the committee received 18 reports of long wait times for veterans’ outpatient medical care dating back to 2005. He said all 69 recommendations in reports from the VA’s Office of Inspector General were implemented, and it was through the committee oversight process that whistleblowers in Phoenix stepped forward to reveal systemic problems.

When asked why he was confident that all of the recommended reforms had been implemented, Michaud said, “If they’re not closed to the satisfaction (of the Office of Inspector General), I’m sure they will notify the committee. One thing committee staff will do is follow up on these reports as far as where they’re at: have they been closed satisfactorily, and if not, what it will take to close them.”

Catherine Gromek, congressional relations officer for the Office of Inspector General in Washington, could not immediately confirm Michaud’s assertion that all 69 recommendations have been implemented to the office’s satisfaction.

The staff does not close a recommendation until the VA provides information or documentation that it is implemented, she said, but the office does not always follow up to make sure that a problem is fixed.

“We don’t necessarily know for a fact they made these changes unless (the inspectors) go back to the facility,” Gromek said. Sometimes, inspectors find problems they believed had been fixed, she said.

For years, the Office of Inspector General has documented long waits for veterans who seek medical care, and the manipulation of those times by VA officials to make the waiting lists appear shorter so the officials are eligible for raises or bonuses.

Such problems have not been reported in Maine.

Both Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler have tried to hang the scandal on Michaud, whose work on veterans’ issues is considered one of his political strengths.

Michaud said in an interview Tuesday with the Portland Press Herald that the committee oversight process is working. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s inquiry has been expanded to look at systemic problems at VA facilities around the U.S.

“When you look at the oversight committee hearings we have had and where we have been going as a committee, it’s been great,” said Michaud.

At the same time, he said, he has been frustrated by the department’s inability to provide the committee with information. He said he voted with the committee to issue subpoenas to get information from VA officials.

“Veterans in Maine know me, and they’ve worked with me,” Michaud said. “I’m willing to put my record any day of the week up against Gov. LePage’s dealing with veterans. And Eliot Cutler? Well, he doesn’t have a record.”

In a written statement, Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political consultant, questioned why a report May 28 from the Office of Inspector General noted the number of times the office has reported problems.

“If these problems were addressed to the OIG’s satisfaction, why do they state in their own report on the issues surrounding this scandal that these issues are not new,” Littlefield said. “If Michael Michaud thinks the role of a governor is to simply sit back and attend some meetings and then send out a press release or make a news statement, then he has failed the test to become Maine’s chief executive. … There has clearly been a lack of action by the federal government during Michael Michaud’s time on the veterans committee to solve the real problem at the VA.”

Littlefield also said it was CNN, not the oversight committee, that broke the news of the scandal in Phoenix.

Cutler said in a written statement that the problem isn’t a political issue. He questioned whether all of the recommendations have been implemented.

“It’s an important national issue about whether or not our veterans have been receiving timely and proper care. Clearly, many have not, and lots of questions haven’t been answered,” Cutler said. “Congressman Michaud wants us to evaluate him on his record in office; well, this is part of that record.”

Wait times have been a chronic problem for veterans because there aren’t enough doctors to meet the demand created by the return of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the Obama administration broadened the list of qualifying medical conditions for VA benefits, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Vietnam-era exposure to Agent Orange.

Michaud highlighted his role in creating a program to increase access to health care for veterans. He and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are looking to expand that program nationwide.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Michaud said Tuesday morning on the Bangor-based WVOM radio show. “It’s something that both (Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida) and myself take seriously, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings

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