Covering the entire Upper Peninsula and 10 counties in northern Wisconsin, the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center cares for approximately 24,000 registered veterans, making it the most rural VA facility nationwide.
But don’t draw assumptions about the quality of healthcare based on its location. The Oscar G. Johnson VA is the recipient of the 2021 Best Experience Award for a Level III Hospital, marking the fourth consecutive year of awards for the Iron Mountain-based VA, following up the Best Overall Experience award among 169 facilities nationwide in 2020.
Finalists are judged based on a number of factors, from culture and patient communications to employee engagement and environment. Despite a territory covering a large portion of the Upper Midwest, and many veterans to care for, the center continuously ranks among the top 10 percent of VA facilities in the U.S.
It’s no surprise the facility also ranks at the top of the charts for employee satisfaction and one of the best places to work in the Veterans Health Administration.
“The staff at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center and our community-based clinics are dedicated to the mission of serving our veterans. It sets us apart because we provide professional and compassionate care to our veterans, and we have a friendly and welcoming environment here,” says Amy Fowler, assistant chief of mental health.
With a focus on ICARE values -- Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence, the staff at the Oscar G. Johnson VA sets themselves apart, says Katie Maxon, head of voluntary services.
“It 100 percent comes down to our people. It’s that passion to get to know our veterans, to make sure they are taken care of, it’s that extra step that we take to absolutely go above and beyond what they need and even be perceptive about what their needs might be … It’s the checks and balances of making sure that the veterans are well cared for, and that their families and their caregivers are cared for too,” Maxon says.
“It’s a small community. Yes, we are taking care of veterans, but we’re also taking care of our friends and neighbors.”
Over the last 10 years, the VA has implemented a new care initiative called the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT). This program is a partnership with veterans and their healthcare team to ensure they receive holistic, personalized care to meet all their healthcare needs.
“Each team has a primary care provider, an RN, an LPN, a medical support assistant, a social worker, and a pharmacist,” says Rhonda Watt, administrative officer of primary care. “It provides consistency, and I really think that means a lot to them. The care team really gets to know their patients.”
With eight community-based outreach clinics spread across the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center offers volunteer transportation services to ensure veterans have access to the healthcare they need.
“The great thing is we try to schedule them, if possible, on the same day. We really work hard so that they can come and have all their appointments on the same day, especially when they’re coming from 100 miles away,” Watt says.
It is programs and services like these from staff and volunteers that lend itself to the culture found at the medical center. With approximately one-third of the staff being veterans, the quality of care provided to local veterans receives an extra layer of understanding and compassion that is found among military comrades.
“About a third of the staff members are veterans. When you talk to them about why they chose what they did, they want to give back because they’re humble and that’s what they do. It’s amazing to me how many of them say ‘I just want to serve others,’” Maxon says.
She adds, “I think that having veteran employees also lends itself to our culture, not that you have to be a veteran to work here. But I think it helps with instantaneous trust and that connection … I think that’s great model behavior for those of us who aren’t veterans; we see that respect and admiration and attitude of those who have served also serving others, and it makes it really easy for those of us who didn’t serve to be humble enough to realize we owe a lot.”
That is evident not only in the amount of time staff invests in local veterans, but also in their willingness to give back to their community at large.
The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center participates in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). The CFC is a national fundraising campaign for federal employees in general to give back to the community at large by matching donations to local nonprofits. “
“Any non-profit can apply, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have local non-profits register and apply so we can give back directly to our community. It’s a nice opportunity for us as employees to financially help support our own community,” Maxon says. “We are grateful for our incredibly gracious community.”
As of right now, the employees based at the most rural VA facility in the country are leading the region in CFC participation.
Internal fundraisers, such as the VA 2k Walk, help support homeless veterans by donating anything from gas cards to food cards to even providing cell phones.
“That’s one of the biggest issues we see, especially with mental health. Some veterans struggle to keep a consistent phone plan, and most often we end up giving them a prepaid phone of some nature," Maxon says. "They can’t communicate with us if they can’t stay in touch with us or schedule appointments, and that’s where we don’t want to have anyone fall out of the system because we can’t communicate with them. Mental health works really hard to make sure those connections stay. Some of the dollars that our employees contribute help support that. And I think that leads back to that culture and that passion of caring for our veterans."
It’s not just the staff that gives back. The network of volunteers at the local VA is impressive, with approximately two-thirds of them veterans. Maxon says the contribution and support from our local community makes a big impact.
The VA has implemented various programs throughout the community, including the Butterfly Wish Program, which provides veterans in hospice the opportunity to receive a last meal.
“There are 15 local restaurants that participate, and will provide a last meal if veterans are in hospice care, and are still able and willing and want that meal, our local restaurants will just give them to us. I think that’s part of what inspires us as employees is we know we have that community support,” Maxon says.
Red Coats are greeters who help veterans and visitors navigate the VA.
Centralized in Iron Mountain, the Oscar G. Johnson VA Memorial Hospital spreads throughout the north woods to provide veterans access to healthcare at eight outreach clinics, including locations at Hancock, Ironwood, Rhinelander, Menominee, Sault Ste Marie, Marquette, Manistique and Gladstone.
They also offer an impressive network of providers via Telehealth, especially when working with mental health resources.
Boasting upwards of 50 clinics across the nation, the VA provides all the equipment one might need for a telehealth appointment to connect patients with providers across the country to ensure the best possible care.
For those veterans who may not yet be enrolled or are interested in services but are unsure or overwhelmed with the process, Maxon recommends reaching out to your local Veterans Service Officer.
“There is a Veterans Service Officer in every county within the U.P. and northern Wisconsin. You can call the courthouse, search online, or you can call us, and we can get you connected to a Veteran Service Officer and they are aces with eligibility and enrollment and would help with a softer welcome if someone is a little apprehensive,” Maxon says.
The VA continues to strive for the best possible care and evolves as veterans' needs change. As female veterans continue to be one of the fastest growing enrollment populations, the VA is committed to adding to their services to ensure our female veterans get the best care possible.
Alongside the growth of women’s services, the healthcare facility also offers a myriad of services, from Tai Chi to acupuncture, chiropractic to massage therapy, pain management, as well as dietician and diabetic support, just to name a few.
They also offer resources for caregivers of veterans and strongly encourage caregiver involvement. “We welcome them to come. It’s a team effort,” Maxon says. “If they’ve had some sort of injury or some sort of exposure that limits their capability, a lot of times that spouse is providing the care for them. We do have a caregiver support program that provides resources, support, and connects them with additional support within the community.”
The entrance to the urgent care area at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center.
For mental health services, veterans can call the local VA or come in. In partnering with primary care teams, they are able to refer patients to mental health as soon as the same day to make that process a little smoother and easier for our veterans.
“We encourage anyone in crisis to call 988. Accessible to anyone. 988 and option 1 will get you through to veteran-specific support. Any veteran in crisis, even if they are not enrolled in care, can also access mental health services. We have an emergency staff member on call all day. If they show up here or call, we’re going to get them help,” Maxon says.
“No one gets left behind,” echoes the staff in the room.
If you or someone you know is looking to get involved with the VA, whether it be a job opportunity or volunteering in the community, Maxon encourages you to reach out.
“If someone is excited about the culture or they would be interested in helping in any capacity we encourage them to create an account at www.usajobs.gov
. If they’re interested in volunteering they can reach out to voluntary services. There are lots of different opportunities and ways that people can contribute and support.“