Verdie Bowen, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs, says the Wasilla clinic’s doctors, who worked under contract this summer, have decided not to renew.
The clinic is supposed to have two doctors on staff at all times, but the Wasilla clinic has used one doctor and a nurse practitioner, while a third, temporary doctor rotates in and out. Now, only the nurse practitioner remains to handle the one thousand case (load)s that the clinic handles in a year.
Bowen says the patients are in no danger of not getting care, however, thanks to agreements the VA has with Southcentral Foundation and Providence Hospital for their clinics in Wasilla:
“Southcentral Foundation is receiving up to 700 patients from that [Wasilla] clinic, and we also have another contract with Providence Care, which is also seeing patients as well. So what we have done is throughout the community of Wasilla we have diversified the patients. And those that live closer to the Anchorage side, say for instance, Peters Creek or Chugiak, have the option of coming into Anchorage to be treated at that larger facility.”
The Wasilla nurse practitioner works under the supervision of the VA doctor in Anchorage. Bowen says that despite the shortage of staff, the Wasilla clinic is operating:
“We have few people that are still housed out of the clinic in Wasilla that are being treated by the nurse practitioner there. So the veterans are still reciving their care, there is still no waiting list for those veterans to receive their health care.”
Right now, the Wasilla clinic has openings for two doctors, but Bowen says it is difficult for the VA to attract new doctors, because of pay concerns.
“The VA is locked in with the amount of funds that they can pay. And I really don’t know what that is per doctor. And especially now, with the VA not paying incentive compensations, to keep people, you know, and the end of each cycle, then that’s causing a negative factor in retaining those doctors in those locations.”
Cynthia Joe, chief of staff for the Alaska VA Health Care System, said the VA is offering what it is allowed to offer for salaries. That level is capped at $195,000.
Bowen says often the Alaska lifestyle does not appeal to VA doctors who come here to work from the Lower 48, and that could be an additional reason doctors don’t stay.
He says the shortage of doctors is not simply a VA problem, that it is symptomatic of a problem in clinics nationwide, because (of) fewer students are graduating from medical colleges.