A Veterans Affairs health clinic has not accepted new primary care patients for more than two years because of staffing shortages, requiring some veterans to travel up to an hour away to see a doctor for basic health issues.
The problem is neither new nor specific to Wisconsin Rapids: The VA had nearly 41,000 vacant medical jobs as of mid-July, according to data obtained by USA TODAY. That means roughly 1 in every 6 jobs at VA hospitals and clinics is unfilled. In some locations, the vacancy rates are much higher, with as many as half of critical positions for doctors, nurses, psychologists and schedulers open.
But Wisconsin may be one of the worst instances of long wait times in the VA’s year-long battle to improve veteran’s care. Shortages of doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have also affected a VA clinic in Wausau and the Tomah VA Medical Center, which in August had to temporarily close its 11-bed psychiatric unit because of limited staffing — one of the most extreme responses to the VA’s national problem.
Some vacancies have been addressed by hiring temporary workers, or, in worst-case scenarios, closing beds if there aren’t enough staff on hand, said Joan Clifford, immediate past president of the Nurses Association of Veterans Affairs.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also paid for 1.5 million veterans to see doctors outside the agency in the past year. Those private visits have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $7.7 billion, the VA said. Over the past year, 2,400 patients have been diverted from Wausau’s center to other VA facilities and private health care providers, but it was unclear how far those patients had to go for care.
In Wisconsin’s Tomah region, which includes Wisconsin Rapids and Wausau, the VA had a 19% overall job vacancy rate — just slightly higher than the national average, but far from the eight most extreme regions, which all had vacancy rates above 30%.
SOURCE: Jonathan Anderson, News-Herald Media and Meghan Hoyer