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Facing a shortage of nurses to care for aging veterans, Milwaukee's VA hospital rolls out the perks

By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: December 4, 2017

MILWAUKEE (Tribune News Service) — Michelle Post smiled as she walked into the room and greeted a man sitting in a chair.

After Post pumped hand sanitizer from a dispenser on the wall and pulled on a pair of green gloves, she and Nick Michels chatted over the sound of air flowing through his tracheotomy mask. She bent forward to listen to his lungs through her stethoscope and then knelt.

"I'm going to see if you have any swelling in your legs," Post said on a recent morning at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee.

A black ball cap adorned with the words "Combat Medic" lay on the bed beside Michels.

Post worked as a certified nursing assistant at the Milwaukee VA while she earned her nursing degree at Alverno College and was hired after graduating in 2014. She works in a medical/oncology unit and many of her patients are Vietnam veterans.

"They talk a lot about what they brought back from Vietnam, like Agent Orange, and how that's affecting them now," she said.

It's nurses like Post who are on the front lines of a health care system ministering to a rapidly aging population of American veterans whose average age is now 65. There aren't enough nurses like Post to meet the demand.

With 50 openings for nurses at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for a variety of positions, the facility has scheduled a nurse career fair on Dec. 5 and Dec. 6 where job seekers can fill out applications, meet recruiters and drop off resumes. The Milwaukee VA is also using Facebook, radio advertising and word of mouth to find more nurses.

"It's because nurses are aging and they're due to retire in eight to 10 years. We're losing a lot of our most senior nurses with years of experience which is concerning," said Angela Garza, a registered nurse and program manager for a medical/oncology unit on the hospital's 4th floor.

It's not just the Milwaukee VA or the national VA system that's searching for nurses. A looming nurse shortage has been on the horizon for several years for a combination of reasons: the need for more medical professionals as Baby Boomers age, retirements and too few educators to meet the demand for people applying to nursing schools, said Barbara Nichols, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Nursing.

The average age of nurses in Wisconsin is 47 while the average age of nursing educators is 53, according to surveys done by the Wisconsin Center for Nursing.

Within the VA system the shortage is acute. The VA inspector general's office, in a report released in September, determined that for the last four years nurses were among the top two critically needed positions in the veterans health care system. In the previous fiscal year, which ended in September 2016, a total of 7,223 nurses were hired by the VA. However, 5,371 nurses left during that time — with 38% retiring and 55% resigning or transferring to another government agency.

The VA projects the current population of 20 million veterans to decline to 13.6 million in the next 20 years. But as they get older, just as in the civilian population, the amount of medical care required by veterans will rise.

"Our population is definitely increasing," said Garza, "whether it's veterans who opted not to use VA care when they were younger and are now using their veterans benefits or veterans who are getting older."

Post-9/11 veterans, people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are "a group we've seen a number of already and we're anticipating we'll see more as they age," Garza said.

Milwaukee VA nursing openings are due to people leaving as well as new positions created to improve the nurse-patient ratio in the spinal chord clinic and a new residential nursing home. Openings are also in the ER, medical surgery, rehabilitation, cardiology, hematology and home health care and the VA is looking for new graduates, people with one to two years experience as well as those with five years or more on the job.

Generous benefits package

VA nurse recruiters tout a generous paid vacation plan of five weeks each year even for new hires as well as salaries commensurate with the private sector, paid sick leave and holidays, federal retirement pensions and the ability to easily transfer to other VA facilities throughout the U.S.

Also, nurses who are veterans get priority hiring at the VA.

A downside for recruiters — nurses specializing in some specialties such as pediatrics or OB/GYN are usually not interested in VA jobs since the veteran patient population is primarily older and mostly male, said Nichols, who served in the Navy in the early 1960s.

The upside? Helping veterans.

"There is nothing more rewarding than serving the people who served us," said Kristen Peterson, who was hired by the Milwaukee VA after graduating from UWM in 2012.

©2017 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wis.
VA

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