FOX 11 Investigates: Head of VA surgery center in Green Bay stepping down

Milo C. Huempfner VA Outpatient Clinic in Green Bay, Wis.

After just one year on the job, the head of surgery at the VA clinic in Green Bay is stepping down. Dr. Richard Ellison tells FOX 11 Investigates one reason is because he thinks the VA's facility in Green Bay is too big. He also says it is wasting taxpayer money.

The Milo C. Huempfner outpatient clinic opened in August of 2013. Since then, doctors have cared for thousands of veterans at the clinic.

But the outpatient surgery center is another story. Last year, FOX 11 Investigates highlighted the delays in getting the surgery center up and running.

Then in June of 2015, more than a year and a half after the clinic opened, doctors performed the first surgery at the clinic. That's when Dr. Ellison was brought in as the chief of surgery. Surgeries could not be performed until the clinic had a full-time general surgeon on staff.

FOX 11 Investigates sat down with Dr. Ellison shortly after he arrived in Green Bay.

"My real role here is to maximize the use of this facility," Dr. Ellison told FOX 11 last year.

Now, less than one year later, Dr. Ellison is resigning. His last day is at the end of May. FOX 11 sat down with Dr. Ellison again and asked if he had been able to maximize the facility. He replied, "No."

When asked why, Dr. Ellison said, "Because the facility is too big."

Specifically, Dr. Ellison is talking about the surgery center's five state of the art operating rooms. Right now, surgery is only being done in two of them.

"I have three empty operating rooms. The lights are off. We don't even go in them," Dr. Ellison said. "They're filled with brand new, fresh equipment."

Dr. Ellison says with five operating rooms, the clinic has the capacity to perform 25 surgeries per day. He says there simply aren't enough patients to do that.

When asked how many cases he is handling a month, Dr. Ellison said, "I'm doing about two to three surgical procedures a month."

Other surgeons at the clinic are busier. In the past year, doctors have performed 251 surgeries there. That is an average of approximately five per week. The pace has been picking up each quarter. Still, Dr. Ellison says five operating rooms are way too many.

"Whoever built this, whoever designed it, whoever spent the taxpayer money on it, did it wrong," Dr. Ellison said.

FOX 11 Investigates took Dr. Ellison's concerns to the interim director of the Milwaukee VA Jim McLain. He oversees the Green Bay clinic. McLain says the clinic is averaging 13-14 surgeries per week. But he admits that's not enough to justify five operating rooms.

When asked if the five operating rooms are too many for the Green Bay facility, McLain replied, "At this time I would say yes. In the future, I'm not so sure."

McLain says it's not just the surgery center that's too big. He says the entire facility is larger than what the V-A needs.

"The clinic that is there is larger than the clinic we asked for," McLain said.

How is that possible? McLain says it's because the facility is more than twice the size the VA originally planned.

"We were looking for something in the area of 70,000 square feet," McLain said. "Certainly not on the scale of the 164,000 square feet that the current Green Bay clinic occupies."

McLain says at the time the facility was built, there was a push within the VA for more specialty care and outpatient surgery.

"That would have been a decision that was made at VA central office and senior VA leadership in terms of what was going to be the nature of that facility and it would have had to be appropriated by Congress. So those decisions would have been made well above our level," McLain said.

When asked if it was a good decision to build a larger clinic, McLain replied, "I think that's yet to be determined. It is certainly presenting challenges for us now in terms of budget allocations."

McLain says the Green Bay clinic costs $34-35 million a year to operate. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee VA is currently dealing with a $30-million budget deficit.

"We're going to have to readjust some of the things that we do to ensure we balance our budget," McLain said.

"This is an example of the VA's inefficiency in solving and resolving these problems and this is not unique to Green Bay, Wisconsin," said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-8th District).

FOX 11 Investigates spoke with Ribble about the Green Bay clinic.

"Its timing ended up getting constructed during the great recession that we had in 2009-2010 when costs of construction went down. The VA made a determination at that time, as I understand it, to make the facility larger because they were able to do so within the budget that had been approved for that facility."

"This place is a shame," Dr. Ellison said. "And it's not a shame because of the people who work in it. It's a shame because it was built wrong."

But the facility is here and it's not going anywhere. The question is what should the VA do with it now?

"We have a facility that has to be used," Dr. Ellison said.

Dr. Ellison says he has brought up several ideas to VA leadership, like leasing some of the operating rooms to health care providers in the private sector.

"Let's get someone in there to use the facility, use the equipment and take care of everyone. Make the veterans the priority. But use it. You can't have it empty. It's wrong," Dr. Ellison said.

Ribble agrees.

"If there are not veterans that need it we should possibly consider leasing it to one of the other health care providers so they can use that space and the taxpayers can get a return on their investment," Ribble said.

McLain says the VA is exploring partnerships with other groups but it will take a year to 18 months before it happens.

"Ultimately for me, the fact that we're providing better care for our veterans, we're providing more timely care for our veterans, the support that we're receiving from our veterans, those are the things that are important to me. Yes, as a taxpayer I am looking to ensure that we get the biggest bang for our buck. But at this time, we've got to get the biggest bang for the buck based on decisions that were made 10 years ago," McLain said.

Dr. Ellison says he's not waiting around to see if anything changes.

"They're just going to say they're working on it. They're going to say that they're aware and that they're working on it. And then I'm going to be happier that I left," Dr. Ellison said.

The VA says it already has another full-time general surgeon on staff. So when Dr. Ellison leaves at the end of the month, his position will not be filled. Surgeries will continue at the facility. Besides the full-time general surgeon, the Green Bay VA clinic also has four part-time surgeons on staff.

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