Nearly 1 in 5 employees eligible for retirement at VA hospital serving the U.P.

Jul 6, 2015

The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center is located in Iron Mountain, Michigan.
Credit Courtesy photo / Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center

The VA hospital that serves 26,000 veterans in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin is having trouble recruiting healthcare providers.

Plus, almost one in five employees at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center is eligible for retirement.

Brad Nelson is a spokesman for the Iron Mountain based clinic. He says they’ve compiled a list of providers they’re expecting to be short on in the next decade.

“Medical officer, primary care provider, nurse, physician assistant, physical therapist, medical technologist, psychology, optometry,” Nelson said.

Finding providers is not a problem that's unique to the VA, Nelson said. Recruiting people to work at such a rural hospital with bitter cold winters has been difficult for “several years” now.

“We do really emphasize, on the one hand, for those who do love the outdoors and outdoor sports, and hunting, fishing, this is a great place to be,” he said.

The Sault Ste Marie outpatient clinic was without a provider for two years, he said.

Nelson says provider shortages means veterans wait longer to see a doctor in some cases, especially psychiatrists and psychologists. At one point, Nelson says, they had one psychiatrist on staff to serve the whole region.

On average though, wait times in the region are lower than the national average. Nelson says they’ve got a few strategies to keep it that way.

Four years ago they started hosting career days to try to get more high school and college students who already live near the hospital interested in careers at the VA. They offer internships now too.

For short term issues, Nelson says they’ve offered providers part time work and hire on a contract basis.

“That’s how we were able to kind of anticipate, even with a provider shortage, to have fairly decent wait times. Not necessarily perfect but much better than what you’d have over in Phoenix and Philadelphia and some of the other places around the country,” he said.

A recent report from the Associated Press showed a little over 2% of veterans appointments at Oscar G. Johnson took more than 30 days to complete. The national average was just under 3%.

Nelson says technology that allows vets to see their doctor virtually has also improved wait times.