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Nursing staff shortages mean less health care options for Ohio veterans

 A man sits in a home with a 'VA Home-Front' baseball cap and a shirt that reads 'veteran'.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Joe Ferneau says the Chillicothe VA has saved his life. He just wishes they could reopen their acute medical unit, so he could get all his care from one facility.

As you step into Joe Ferneau’s home in southeast Ohio, it’s immediately clear he’s proud of his military service.

On the wall, where you might expect family photos to hang, are portraits of men in uniform.

“This is my son here serving the United States Marine Corps,” Ferneau said, beaming with pride as he pointed to the largest one. “There’ve been about eight or 10 of us in service in my generation.”

Ferneau served in the Korean War. And, when he returned home, he faced a different sort of challenge: throat cancer at the age of 76. Today, ten years later, he’s cancer-free. He said that’s all thanks to the care he got at the VA Medical Center in Chillicothe.

“This is the greatest facility in southern Ohio and I might say the world because they have saved my life on three occasions,” he said.

Ohio is home to more than 600,000 veterans. And, like Ferneau, many get their health care from one of the state’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities. But that care has been harder to get as the hospitals have faced staffing shortages. 96% of VHA employees reported needing more front-line staff, according to a national survey.

An exodus of staff

Ferneau’s son Jeff works at the Chillicothe Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Both of them faced the threat of its closure just last year. The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) announced plans to shutter the facility because of a predicted sharp decrease in patient counts.

They fought successfully alongside community members like Jessica Fee for it to remain open. She’s the president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Even though the facility was spared, Fee said there’s still been an exodus of acute medical nurses.

“They've taken other jobs, they've transferred out. I think there was probably around 50 to 60 staff back then. And out of that group, I would say there's less than, less than eight still there,” she said.

 Joe Ferneau sits at his kitchen, while his son Jeff stands beside him with his arm wrapped around his shoulder. Light pours in from their back porch.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Joe and Jeff Ferneau are both veterans who rely on the Chillicothe VA for medical care. Jeff has worked as a housekeeper there for the last decade.

Fee said the result is fewer care options. The facility’s acute medical unit shut down in 2020 amid the pandemic. In addition, she said beds in other units have been taken offline and two of its mental health units have been consolidated to one.

Specialized care is even harder to bring to the hospital’s patients. Fee said she wants to see a federal investment in recruiting doctors or surgeons to the rural area.

“You have to get them specialists,” she said. “[Rural VA medical centers] have to be everything to their veterans, because there is nothing else. We have to be everything.”

A spokesperson for the Chillicothe VA says staffing shortages have not caused the suspension of care offerings. Rather, they say, patient population decline has caused temporary mergers.

Unmet need

Regardless of the reason, the VA medical centers across the state are missing around 18% of the staff they need.

And, it’s not just a VA problem. The Ohio Department of Veteran Services (DVS) mostly provides nursing home care for vets, and it’s also struggling to recruit enough nurses.

“Fewer people are receiving care specifically because we can't hire enough nurses to provide the level of care necessary,” said Sean McCarthy, assistant director of DVS.

Bright green grass and colorful trees surround the red brick buildings at the Chillicothe VA Medical Center.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Part of what Joe Ferneau loves about the Chillicothe Veterans Administration Medical Center is that it's not a "concrete jungle". When his care is outsourced, he misses the nature that surrounds the southeast Ohio center.

McCarthy said their long-term care facilities have had to reduce admissions in the last couple years. Now, there are more than 100 veterans on the waitlist.

“If I could hire 30-40% as many nurses, we would be reopening wings today. We just would start clearing that backlog immediately,” he said.

McCarthy said they’ve raised pay and upped job advertising – but two years in, they haven’t seen the staffing increases they hoped for.

Outsourced care

Ferneau is still waiting, too, for Chillicothe’s acute medical unit to reopen. He said more and more of his medical care has been outsourced to private hospitals.

When that happens, he said he doesn’t get the same medical attention. He often has to travel, which is hard now that he’s 86. And, sometimes his medical records take time to transfer, and subsequently delay his care.

At other non-veterans hospitals, he feels forgotten.

“I'd rather die on the steps of the Chillicothe VA Hospital than go somewhere that I don't know about.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.