Sweeping reforms in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs took a step forward Wednesday with the establishment of a conference committee, which includes U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, that is charged with drafting a final reform package for Congress to send to President Obama.

The committee formation came on the same day that a Caribou-based medical clinic was highlighted during a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs as a potential model for increasing access to health care for veterans.

The clinic is participating in the Project ARCH pilot program, which allows certain veterans to see doctors at non-VA clinics.

The VA health-care system has been under the microscope since whistleblowers in Phoenix revealed that officials whose compensation was tied to meeting wait-list standards were manipulating records to hide the amount of time veterans had to wait to see a doctor. Whistleblowers alleged that as many as 40 veterans have died while awaiting care.

The VA Office of Inspector General found that the problem was systemic throughout the country, and the FBI has launched a criminal probe. An interim report by the OIG found that more than 1,700 veterans awaiting care in Phoenix were not on an official waiting list.

The scandal forced Eric Shinseki, a decorated veteran, to resign as VA secretary.

While a few Maine veterans have had to wait more than 30 days to see a doctor, there have been no reports of manipulating records here.

Last week, both the House and the Senate passed bills that would implement systemic reforms in the VA.

Both bills would allow veterans living at least 40 miles from a VA clinic, or who cannot receive an appointment within a specific period of time, to receive a voucher to pay to see a doctor at a community clinic. Both bills would also make it easier to fire VA officials by removing civil service protections.

The Senate bill, authored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and John McCain, R-Arizona, authorizes leases for 26 new medical facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico, designates funds to hire more doctors and nurses, and eliminates wait times as part of employee performance measures, according to a joint news release from Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent.

Both bills would come at a significant cost.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would cost $50 billion a year, while the House bill would cost $54 billion.

Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the House VA Committee and a candidate for governor, will serve on the conference committee along with five other Democrats and eight Republicans. That group will meet with its counterparts in the Senate to draft a compromise bill to send to Obama.

No timetable has been set.

“Serving our nation’s veterans has been the highest honor of my career in public service, and now we must all come together – Republicans and Democrats alike – to roll up our sleeves and finalize a legislative package that best meets the urgent needs of the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our nation,” Michaud said in a written statement.

Also on Wednesday, Kris Doody, the CEO of Cary Medical Center in Caribou, testified before the House VA Committee about the success of Project ARCH – a program Michaud helped create and that could serve as a model for expanding health-care access for veterans.

Doody told the committee that 1,400 veterans are enrolled for care through Project ARCH and have received more than 3,000 consultations. For many veterans in Aroostook County, the VA Maine Healthcare System, also known as Togus, in Augusta is a 600-mile round trip.

Doody estimated that veterans have saved $600,000 in travel costs.

“We believe that Project ARCH has tremendous potential to save lives of our nation’s honorable and courageous veterans, save millions of dollars and ultimately advance the health status of millions of veterans nationwide,” Doody said.

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