After positive audit, VA facility seeks improvement

IRON MOUNTAIN – When the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs audited the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain as part of its investigation earlier this year into more than 700 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, the hospital and its seven outpatient satellites came out looking pretty good.

“We basically found 98 percent of our veterans were able to get to their appointments within 30 days,” said Brad Nelson, public affairs officer for the hospital. “When the audit came around, we were at 16 days … for primary care, I believe it was 21 days for specialty care and then like nine days for mental health (care).”

Nelson said though the Iron Mountain facility hasn’t shared in most of the VA’s problems, all of the administration’s difficulties stem from access issues and not the care itself.

The VA scandal involved staff at many of its hospitals using secret wait lists to make veterans’ long wait times look less severe, ongoing issues with the compatibility of digital and paper records causing the clogging of the application process.

“Once you’re in, the care is very good,” he said. “And so we really don’t have a problem getting people in, but we also have good care. The patient satisfaction scores (in Iron Mountain and its satellites) tend to be higher than the nationwide average as well.”

And even though the Iron Mountain facility came out of the audit with pretty good marks, “we’re going to continue to be vigilant,” Nelson said. “We’re not going to sit on our laurels. We’re going to look for opportunities for improvement.”

One way they identify such opportunities, Nelson said, is with daily morning reports from senior staff to James Rice, director of the medical center. He said the staff go over data together, identifying where their access and care is strong and where efforts could be improved. Staff are also now observing scheduling practices in the outpatient clinics on a monthly basis.

Another is by doing what they can to keep staffed with permanent doctors, which Nelson said can be a challenge, given the hospital’s rural setting. Previously, the hospital would hire doctors on a six-month contract basis. But recently, Nelson said they finally filled their need for doctors on a permanent basis. The facility and its clinics employ about 70 doctors among their 658 employees. 32 percent of their employees are veterans. On top of that, they enlist the help of more than 600 volunteers.

The facility has one of the largest coverage areas east of the Mississippi River, providing care to veterans from all 15 counties of the Upper Peninsula and 10 counties from Wisconsin across more than 25,000 square miles.

The facility and its seven community-based outpatient clinics in Ironwood, Hancock, Marquette, Manistique, Sault Ste. Marie, Menominee and Rhinelander, Wisconsin, serve nearly 20,000 veterans a year, Nelson said, 65 percent of those at the outpatient clinics such as the one in Marquette.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.